Sunday, May 27, 2012

If You Like Piña Coladas

I have coconuts. The gardeners brought them around a few days ago and I decided the long weekend would be a perfect opportunity for from-scratch piña coladas. When you buy a coconut from one of the boys selling them on the street, they open it in the blink of an eye with three or four deft flicks of a machete, let you drink the juice, and then a few more flicks has the rest of the coconut disassembled and ready for snacking. Quick and clean. This is not my way. Opening a coconut is, at its best, a joyful expression of unadulterated savagery.

You take a screwdriver and poke it in one of the three soft spots and the end of the coconut, charmingly referred to as eyes, and thrust the point home with a hammer on the back end. Then you stab out the other eyes and flip it upside down to drain out all the juice, or if you prefer to think of it a certain way, its life force. Put the remaining lifeless husk in a Ziploc, but don't close it, and then wrap it securely in a towel so that there's not much room for it to slide around inside and the majority of the towel is between the coconut and the counter. Then grab your hammer and just whale on that sucker until it's reduced to conveniently sized pieces. You may sound your barbaric yawp at any point during the process. From there fingers and a knife ought to be able to strip the carcass pretty thoroughly.

No, this method doesn't leave much of a shell left to drink the piña coladas out of later with a little umbrella, but I'm okay with that. I have glassware. What do you think I am, some kind of savage?

Friday, May 25, 2012

The New Life Store

During my parents' divorce and in the awkward aftermath when we were all trying to figure out what we were supposed to do now, an idea popped up and stuck around, because we all found it kind of comforting - the New Life Store. When your old life is broken or worn out or starts to pinch a little, you make a change. You go to the New Life Store and pick out one that's brighter, more solid, more spacious, that does what you need it to do. Since then I have been to the New Life Store many times. Some of those lives were painful to break in but got more comfortable later. Some of them looked really great on the rack but fell to pieces in short order. The one I've got now isn't so bad but it comes with a hard expiration date, so it's time to go to the New Life Store again. In the Foreign Service the New Life Store even has a catalog: it's called a bid list, and it came out today.

As I discovered in my first bid list experience, which feels like it was forever ago, bidding is exciting but also in some sense kind of a letdown. Before the list you're in the land of limitless daydreams; you can imagine yourself going anywhere, doing anything! As soon the list comes out you are once again restricted to the world of the possible, which is far more practical but less romantic, and involves a lot more research and spreadsheets than flights of fancy.

The second round of bidding requires deeper research and more complex spreadsheets because there are more variables involved. the first time we got a list of 90-some jobs that were all about equally probable, with some variations for language skills and the like. This time around there are 450ish jobs on the list, but it takes some complex calculations to figure out which ones I could realistically bid on given the timing of the end of my current tour, the start date on the new one, and the scheduling and duration of the trainings in between. It'll take a while to figure out where I CAN go, before I can even start sorting them into where I WANT to go. But one way or another I'll have to pick out and rank order 30 jobs, 30 new lives, that I think might work for me. At least for the next 2-3 years, and then it'll be time to pick out another one.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Sweet Anticipation

Work is about to get super crazy for me for the next month and a half. My boss is curtailing, for personal reasons, leaving the pol/econ section without a chief as soon as his new orders get processed. The poloff is heading to a human rights conference in a few days, so it'll be just me holding the fort for a bit while simultaneously organizing a conference, planning activities for our incoming summer intern, prepping for a smooth handover when the vice-consul and I swap jobs in July, and handling whatever else happens to turn up. All I have to say is it's a good thing I'm so awesome.

Fortunately, I'll also spend the next several weeks doing something rather less intense: vacation planning. I love planning for and looking forward to vacations almost as much as actually going on vacations. I love leafing through travel guides and surfing the web to amass a list of sights, activities, and restaurants to make sure I have a wonderful trip when I get there and some amazing things to look forward to in the meantime. During stressful moments it always helps to think about being somewhere else, somewhere relaxing, somewhere you will be soon, in as much detail as possible.

I have a couple of possible trips at various points on the horizon: a long weekend in Dakar in July to recover from the coming insanity; a Middle East tour in the fall for sister bonding and to see some A-100 buddies; and maybe a jaunt to Iceland in January for some hot springs and Northern Lights. After a year and a half in the tropics the bone-cracking cold will be kind of a fun novelty, right? Right? Maybe? But in any case, when I just CAN'T think about work for one more second all these fun plans give me great opportunities to fill my thoughts with beaches and pyramids and geysers instead.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Food Envy

Every month I look forward to getting my new issue of Bon Appetit in the mail. I love my food porn, but I do also read it for the articles: the April issue taught me all kinds of new things about eggs, and the January version had a simple but delicious recipe for roasted eggplant that's going (with a few tweaks) in the regular rotation. However, living in Conakry has taken some of the joy out of my favorite food reading.

There's one section in Bon Appetit I've never liked: an "aspirational lifestyle" feature that tells the story (with lots of pictures of course) of a [writer/designer/chef/otherwise chic person] having a [dinner party/tea party/barbeque/picnic] at their impeccably decorated [sleek Manhattan skyline apartment/quaint country farmhouse/massive French chateau/private island bungalow] with their stylish, incredibly photogenic friends. And there are recipes. As I have always been a few tax brackets (and many, many chicness brackets) below Bon Appetit's target demographic, this section doesn't so much get me excited about making [featured recipe] just like [semi-famous person!] as it does make me sulky about having things I don't have rubbed in my face.

Unfortunately, living in Conakry makes this worse, as the whole magazine is suddenly filled with things I don't have. There's a whole article about salmon this month. I can't get salmon, except for the occasional smoked salmon smuggled in through the mail. No mushrooms. Rarely lemons. No scallops. No fennel. No pomegranates. No leafy greens besides butter lettuce. No berries, except very rarely frozen ones. No peaches. No jalapenos. Cream can be hard to find. Whole worlds of cheeses out of my reach. Recipe after recipe rendered moot due to ingredient unavailability. And let me tell you, it stings much more to not have asparagus than to not have a personal chateau.

That's not to say that I'm living on gruel. Any staple from home I want can be sent in the mail, as long as it can handle two weeks in a box and African temperatures. And there is fresh produce here - it's mango season, and you've never seen so many different varieties of mangoes, all delightful in their own way. It's just easier to miss the things I can't have when I get full-page glossy photos of them mailed to me every month. I could unsubscribe, but I really value expanding my repertoire with the occasional recipe I CAN make, or close enough anyway. I just have to grit my teeth through the fig and goat cheese pizzas with arugula and strawberries with chamomile cream for another year. Then I'll be back in the States on home leave and hitting up Whole Foods HARD.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Nipples, Censorship, and Other Matters

The topic du jour in the FS blogosphere is nipples, or the lack thereof on the official State blogroll. It seems some bureaucrat went through and pruned the official blog list recently, and one of the blogs removed belonged to Jen Dinoia: trailing spouse, wife, mother, breast cancer survivor. When she emailed to ask why, she was told that too much of the blog was "personal in nature, e.g. nipple cozies," and not necessarily FS-related. The blogosphere cried foul, saying Jen's blog is too an FS story, and a compelling and well-told one that potential officers would enjoy. The Washington Post picked up the story and it spread around from there until State succumbed to the inevitable and put a link to Jen's blog back up. "State Department restores Foreign Service spouse’s blog to its Web site after censoring," trumpets the Post.

I read Jen's blog. I like Jen's blog. But I think this whole thing is a little bit overblown. There is a word for what State is doing in putting up an official blogroll, and that word is ADVERTISING. State is selling a product - the FS lifestyle - and they choose the blogs on their list based on how well those blogs sell it. This is an entirely sensible marketing strategy. When you get that email from State asking if they can link to your site, they are asking if they can use you as free advertising, as a recruiting tool for future FSOs. I got one of those emails, and I said yes. I had to think about it for a few days, to decide if I wanted to shill for The Man. But I like my job and my life, and I decided this was a product I was willing to push.  I'm apparently still good advertising, since there isn't a hell of a lot to do in Conakry but work and blog about it. But if and when I decide that the time has come to talk of other things and I stop being good advertising, they can dump me. There are plenty of FS blogs I don't read and I don't link to because I'm not really interested in pictures of their kids and such. That doesn't make them any less "real FSOs." Not being on the State list doesn't mean that your experience isn't a real and valid FS life; you just didn't get cast for the commercial.

What State did with Jen's blog - and especially the response sent to her email - may have been insensitive and ill-advised, but it wasn't censorship. Jen's blog will live on and delight its readers whether State links to it or not. However, that doesn't mean censorship isn't a problem in the FS blogging world. People DO get pressured to stop blogging by bosses or coworkers. Their jobs, their livelihoods get threatened because of their blogs. Not mine thank god, at least not yet, but it happens. Those blogs go dark, and that's where the censorship charge starts to be more realistically applied. THAT's where the risk is. THAT's where the battle is. Let's not make a mountain out of a molehill when the mountain's already there.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

EER? Err...

To every thing there is a season. There's the traditional spring/summer/fall/winter rotation of course - or in Conakry, wet and dry - but the Foreign Service as an entity has seasons of its own. There's budget season, strategic resource planning season, and the frenetic spending spree that marks the of the End of the Fiscal Year. Today is the final day of EER season, a period of several weeks during which the entire service withdraws to semi-hibernation in their offices to produce and push around the mountain of paper that is the annual Employee Evaluation Review. I could explain the EER process to you, but fortunately the internet has already stepped up in that department so you can read all about it here. But for the lazy, here's the quick and dirty:
The report consists of: the rating statement- prepared (in theory) by the supervisor for employees at or below the rank of 02 and by the rated employee at 01 and above, the review statement- prepared by the next level of management, the dreaded “room for improvement” box and the rated employees final statement, affectionately known as the “suicide box.” Each report has to address issues such as leadership, management, communication skills, intellectual skills, job knowledge and of course EEO [equal employment opportunity].

The process of writing the report is intended to be collaborative and transparent, with the rated employee, the rater (immediate supervisor) and the reviewer (usually next step up the chain of command) working together to produce a report that places the rated employee within the organization and measures his or her performance against the work requirements of the position.

In reality, for all but the most junior of officers and the total screw-ups, the employee writes at least the first draft of his or her own rating statement-it is a simple matter of time and wanting to have the best report possible. Combine this with the unwritten policy of “damn by faint praise” for the screw-ups and it becomes extremely difficult to tell who is actually a standout employee. It is only with slight exaggeration they
[sic] I say some reports use phrases like “when Dick is not walking on water he is busy turning it into wine.” Smiley wrote a bout [sic] visits recently- when the Secretary of State visits your post everyone of any elevated rank ends up with credit for the success of the visit- whether the visit was indeed a success or not. Much like grade inflation in our colleges, relative worth of an employee’s contribution is inflated to help that person stand out among a group of peers who all have basically the same job.
So basically my annual performance review is a joint essay project for me, my boss, and my boss's boss, with the goal of convincing my future promotion and tenure panels (who most likely have never met me or seen any of my work) that I am not merely awesome, but the most awesomely awesomest with an extra coat of awesomesauce. Awesome. As a low man on the totem pole I only have to be concerned with my own EER, but the DCM has to come up with two or three glorifying paragraphs for almost every single person at the embassy, so you can see why this takes some time.

There is also mandatory section to list and briefly explain an area of improvement, but I'm learning that even this is precisely gamed to make the rated employee look as good - or as least bad - as possible, rather than addressing any actual professional shortcomings. Some areas of improvement are informally considered to be worse than others in certain career tracks and at certain points in one's career and are therefore strategically avoided, with "Interpersonal Communication" widely rumored to be the universal kiss of death.

Since I haven't been at post a year yet my EER isn't due until next month, but my boss and I have already started work on it, picking out my greatest accomplishments since I arrived and polishing them up for that extra shine. I haven't started my personal statement for the "suicide box" yet. I don't really know what to say. I've never been especially good at tooting my own horn, despite being told by any number of teachers and career counselors and other mentor-type figures that this is a - if not THE - vital professional skill. But if I have to compete with all those other gilded lilies out there I guess I'd better have my sparkliest gold paint ready.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Adventures in Guinean Health Care

The State Department does not have a high regard for Guinea's health care system. If any of us get anything worse than light cuts and bruises or a mild case of Guinea Gut, we're on a plane for London faster than you can say "ouch". However, the State Department is not quite as solicitous about the health of diplopets, so when the Jabberwock started throwing up his fancy imported low-carb biologically-optimized organic kibble it was time to take Guinea's kitty health care system for a spin.

Our health unit helped me find a French-trained vet not too far away, so I jammed the cat in his hated carrier and took him down for an inspection. He was pretty yowly on the way there, as is his wont when dragged someplace he doesn't want to go, but he quieted down real fast once the vet stuck a thermometer up his little kitty butt. In fact, I didn't hear a peep out of him for hours after that.

The vet's office was about what I expected, or what I would have expected if I hadn't long ago learned the futility of expecting things in Guinea. The power was out and the exam room was being cleaned, so he did the exam in the waiting area - scuffed and faded but immaculate except for a few wandering flies and a couple crates of chickens parked out front. He took a sample, made a slide, and checked it out on a microscope, the old-style kind with a mirror. Handy for power outages. We walked around back to his office where he told me that my little fuzzbutt has some kind of intestinal parasite and wrote a prescription. Quick, painless, and cheap: the visit and the pills together cost less than ten bucks. And I learned that I have adequate French to explain the details of Jabbers' gastrointestinal distress.

Now to start adventures with getting the cat to take a pill. Maybe a spoonful of bacon grease helps the medicine go down?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Two Points for Honesty

The theme for this round of the bi-weekly Foreign Service Blog Round-Up is "honesty". It's a tough one, but perhaps a good opportunity for me to make a shocking announcement: ladies and gentlemen, this blog is a fraud! Well, kind of. While no actual facts were harmed in the making of this blog, it hardly represents the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about who I am and what my life is like.

There a lot of things I don't say on this blog. My opinions on foreign affairs are strictly off-limits - one of the conditions of the job is that we publicly support and defend whatever official U.S. foreign policy is at the time, no matter what, so my thoughts on what's going on in Whereverstan are never going to show up here. Domestic policy is theoretically okay, but as a lot of the more interesting policy debates in the U.S. also have international implications that can still be a little tricky. For example, as an FSO and especially as a consular-officer-to-be I'm not touching immigration policy with a 10-foot pole.

The things I can say about work are somewhat circumscribed by a combination of restrictions on sensitive information and common sense. You're not going to get the deep details on what I do with my workdays, though I try to get in some of the more general stuff.  Likewise, you're never going to hear any complaints about my boss or coworkers or the latest office gossip, because sharing those things would just be stupid. My colleagues, past, present, and future, read this, and in a tight community like the FS fake names and other such ham-fisted attempts at anonymity don't go very far.

So what's left? Personal honesty, I suppose, but that's tough too. For style purposes I try to keep my more miserable moments off the blog, or at least wait until the tempering effect of hindsight allows me to recast them in a wittier and more entertaining light. Constant whining is annoying as hell; everyone has that one Facebook friend who's always complaining about something, and I don't want to be That Guy. I keep a personal journal in hard copy for that sort of venting, and having gone back and reread some of the more verklempt entries from my high school and college years I am even more convinced of the wisdom of this policy.

Need more evidence of my literary fraud? Simply run my blog through this handy Myers-Briggs type anaylzer. Or save yourself the trouble: the blog gives the impression that I am an ESFJ, a warm, caring, generous people person who wants everyone to like them and is always doing nice things for people. In real life I am an INTJ (or perhaps an ISTJ), a judgmental perfectionist who doesn't really understand how other people work exactly, and gets tired trying to figure it out. If you've ever read the blog and thought, "she sounds like a fun, friendly person I'd like to hang out with in real life," you may want to downgrade your expectations.

All of this...let's call it nonesty, shall we?...can be kind of draining. There's a lot of self-editing involved to make sure I'm not saying things I shouldn't say or that could be construed in a way I don't want. And sometimes I want to put something in the blog SO BADLY even though I know it's a bad idea, because I'm excited about it, and then I have to talk myself down. But sometimes it's also kind of nice. I can be - in text, on the internet - closer to the kind of person I want to be. I can be the kind of person who can go straight from difficult moments to thoughtful introspection and lessons learned without the emotional meltdown in between. I can be the kind of person who handles a solo hardship tour with grace and aplomb and never (what, never? ...well, hardly ever) cries herself to sleep at night. I can be the kind of person who, if she can't say something nice, doesn't say anything at all. I can be me, but better.

Consider this a disclaimer. I'd put it on the bottom of the blog, but it's maybe a tad long for that.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

More First World/Third World Problems

After almost a year in Conakry (goodness, already?) the things that surprised me on arrival have become commonplace. It seems normal for the power to go out several times a day (though I still prefer for it not to happen at hair-doing time) and I have come to terms with a lot of Conakry's deprivations, like the lack of movie theaters and real stores and the total absence of many of my favorite fruits and vegetables and other key ingredients. But the one thing about Guinea that I still find wrenching Every. Single. Day. is the terrible, terrible internet.

I miss streaming video. It is possible to watch shortish videos if you're willing to let them load up for half an hour first, but internet TV ain't happening. But I can handle that. Harder to deal with are the myriad programs and apps on my various devices that keep trying desperately to update but simply can't make it happen. Often this is just annoying but now it's causing me some real problems: I lost Steam.

For those of you who haven't bought a PC game in the last decade or so, Steam is a nifty program that works with many new games to purchase them, download them, register them, update them, and sync them, so once you register your game purchase with Steam you can play it on one computer, save the game to the cloud, and open it up again on another. It also helps you find and save friends for multiplayer games and lets you chat while you play. All this connectivity is fantastic when you have high-speed internet to sustain it, but when you're trying to run Steam on internet more appropriate for this, you're in trouble.

Specifically, my copy of Steam corrupted so the offline feature no longer worked - when you don't have an internet connection you're supposed to be able to play your games from the files on your computer, but no such luck. Even with the disc and the registration code the games try to call up Steam and refuse to work without its okay. For me this means no Portal, no Skyrim (which I bought on R&R and played for all of half an hour in the States before I left) and most tragically, no Civilization V. I haven't gotten in a good loot and pillage in months, and it's making me itchy. There's only one way to fix this - reinstall Steam.

I spent ALL DAY today (day off for Labor Day! Yay!) gently shepherding my laptop through the excruciatingly slow process of downloading, reinstalling, and updating Steam, with several interruptions for power outages. And after all that effort and all that time I STILL can't connect to whatever servers need to recognize me and give my computer permission to play the games I paid good money for. It's enough to make me want to reduce a thriving civilization to ashes. Oh wait. I CAN'T. I've still got Oregon Trail so I could kill someone with dysentery, but that just doesn't provide the same stress relief as total world domination. Sigh.