Thursday, September 30, 2010
Tomorrow, October 1, from 12:40 to 1:30, GLIFAA (Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, but you knew that already right? Right? Or else I have FAILED!) will be having an informal brown bag lunch at FSI for the 156th A-100 class.
Anyone who is interested in learning about GLIFAA is welcome (encouraged!) to attend. Allies are especially welcome.
Please don't make me have lunch by myself!
We are in the same room as last week. The tables have been re-arranged, which is a god thing. The new formation allows for 36 people to sit.
Remember that we still have 46 people in the class. The professor just encourages them to go steal chairs from other rooms.
Today he had us watch another film, With Fire and Sword. This one was in Polish and Ukrainian with English subtitles. Of course, it took ten minutes to get the subtitles on because no one bothered to prepare that in advance. Not that it mattered, since the layout of the room made it impossible for many of us to actually SEE the subtitles. Me included. So I can't tell you much about it.
And then partway through, he realized he had the wrong version of the movie, so we had to switch.
I guess we should cut them some slack. After all, this is the first time FSI has done area studies. Oh wait...
In other news, the promotion lists came out. I am genuinely happy for the folks who got promoted. I can't help but feel a twinge of bitterness though, as because I didn't get promoted the first time I was eligible, I am not eligible for my next promotion until next year. And chances are I won't get promoted then because conventional wisdom is that you don't get promoted out of language training.
Oh well. Hopefully I will get promoted before I finish my next assignment.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
I have no such tasks at hand today, so I am using my admin day to study (since the government is paying me for this time and my primary job is to learn Estonian). But, of course, my house is still filled with people speaking Spanish (on the bright side, the living room has an intact and painted ceiling and my bedroom has an intact but not yet painted ceiling. So progress is happening).
So today I have barricaded myself in the spare bedroom. The door is closed and the fans are on in the hopes of drowning out any of the noise and non-Estonian talking. We'll see how that works.
I am so ready for this to be over. Today I was an hour and a half late to class because the repair company forgot to bring a lock box and the repairmen didn't want to take my keys home with them. So I had to let them in...except their car died.
I can have my life and house back please?
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
I wish I did. I think it would be an incredibly useful language to have. But I don't. And given my intended career trajectory, I think it is unlikely that I will get Spanish from the Department any time soon. The next languages I would like to learn are Russian and Arabic, and I would love to improve my German. so Spanish will have to wait likely until retirement.
So why is this on my mind today?
Because I am finally getting my ceiling repaired (only two and a half months later, but who is counting?). And the men they have sent to do the repairs are Spanish speakers.
Ordinarily, this would not bother me. However, I am studying Estonian. So I have made a conscious effort to avoid speaking any other languages. To my Russian (Evgeny) and Hebrew (Sara) teachers, I have not been avoiding you. I have just been avoiding having anything in my brain other than Estonian.
But now people are speaking Spanish in my house. Which is where I come to study after class. And it, along with the wreck that my house has become, makes it difficult to study effectively.
Add to that today's crisis. I came home and found the guys had opened a window. I don't blame them...lots of fiberglass, drywall and paint fumes in the air. But then I couldn't find one of our cats. I searched this house for an HOUR and she would not come out. And she is the one who comes when she is called (she thinks she is a dog).
I was panicked. I even searched outside, and tried not to panic. Tried to figure out how to tell my wife, who is already dealing with the decline in health of our older cat. Tried to plan out in my head what to put on the fliers and where to post them to find our baby. Worried about traffic, since she has never been an outside cat.
I finally found her. She was in the room with the open window, hiding under a piece of furniture. Best I can figure, she got under there before they started working, before they moved lots of other furniture around the piece she was under. And she was afraid of them so she wouldn't come out. I finally got her out and took her to the spare room. it took her another hour to really relax.
And a while after that for me to relax.
Meanwhile, they are still here speaking Spanish. So I can't study until they leave.
Man, this is going to be a long week.
Monday, September 27, 2010
The work has finally begun on my ceiling. It only took two and a half months to get the insurance approval to start the repairs.
This also means my house is a wreck. My wife and I are back in the spare bedroom and every other available space in the house either is covered with plastic and in varying stages of sheetrock replacement, mudding, sanding, painting, etc., or has crap from the areas under repair in it.
The cats are hiding. The dog is glued to my side and the parrot is unhappy about being in her tiny travel cage.
They tell me the repairs will take 4-5 days.
Saturday, September 25, 2010
But I saw an article today from the NY Times that I really wanted to share with you. It is an interview with Dan Savage on his new project, called It Gets Better, which reaches out to teens being bullied in high school for their sexuality. Part of his hope is to stem the tide of gay teen suicides, because gay teens are far more likely to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts.
I am not sharing this with you for sympathy but to make a point about how it gets better. I was one of those bullied kids. The worst for me was my freshman year at Lexington High School in South Carolina. I was bullied mercilessly. I was called "half male" in P.E. class. A group of particularly cruel students started a club about me, and even had t-shirts made.
I was in constant dread of school and I couldn't imagine things getting better. My parents kept a small gun at home for my mother in case something happened when my dad wasn't home. I went home each day and got the gun out and stared at it, praying for the courage to just end it all. The only thing that kept me from pulling the trigger was the belief that I would go to hell for killing myself. It isn't something I believe now, but I'm glad believed it then.
Because it does get better. You can go on to be a happy, successful adult. I got a good education and am married to the love of my life. We have a good home, great jobs, and a great life. None of which would have happened if I had taken my life.
I plan to make a video for this project because I want to share that and maybe give some desperate teen a reason for hope. Because it does get better. The folks who say high school is the best time of your life are lying.
I hope you will share this article and link with any gay teens you know. And if you are a happy, healthy LGBT adult, I hope you will consider contributing to the project.
Thank Dan, for doing this.
Showing Gay Teenagers a Happy Future
By TARA PARKER-POPE
A new online video channel is reaching out to teenagers who are bullied at school for being gay. The message: life really does get better after high school.
The YouTube channel, called the “It Gets Better Project,” was created by the Seattle advice columnist and activist Dan Savage. Mr. Savage says he was moved by the suicide of Billy Lucas, a Greensburg, Ind., high school student who was the target of slurs and bullying. The channel promises to be a collection of videos from adults in the gay community who share their own stories of surviving school bullying and moving on to build successful careers and happy home lives. The first video shows Mr. Savage with his partner of 16 years, Terry. The men tell their own stories of being bullied, finding each other and becoming parents. This week I spoke with Mr. Savage about the new channel and why he decided to reach out to teenagers. Here’s our conversation.
Q. Why did you decide to create a YouTube channel to talk to gay teenagers?
A. There was another suicide of a teenager, a kid who was being harassed for being gay. I put up a link to the story, and someone said in a comment that they wished they could have talked to the kid for five minutes to tell him it gets better. That’s always been my reaction too. I realized that with things like YouTube and social media, we can talk directly to these kids. We can make an end run around the schools that don’t protect them, from parents who want to keep gay kids isolated and churches that tell them that they are sinful or disordered.
Q. Aren’t celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Adam Lambert already showing teenagers that it’s O.K. to be gay?
A. They see Ellen and Adam Lambert and Neil Patrick Harris. They’re good folks and important public figures, but those are gay celebrities. What are the odds of becoming a celebrity? What kids have a hard time picturing is a rewarding, good, average life for themselves. Becoming Ellen is like winning the lottery. But there are a lot of happy and content lesbians who we don’t see or hear from ever. Those are the people teens need to hear from right now. When a 15-year-old kills himself, he’s saying he can’t picture a future that is decent enough and happy enough to stick around for. Gay adults can show our present lives and help them picture a future.
Q. The video advice you offer kids is to just hang in there. Why aren’t you telling them that you can help them now?
A. We can’t help them. That’s what makes gay adults despair and feel so helpless when we hear these stories. We can’t barge into these schools. I get to go to colleges and speak, but high schools don’t bring me in, and those are the ages that young gay people are committing suicide. I’ve read these stories for years. Because of technology, we don’t need to wait for an invitation anymore to speak to these kids. We can speak to them directly.
Q. You’re an advice columnist who writes about other people’s issues. Was talking about your personal and family life difficult?
A. It made me more self-conscious. I don’t write about my life in my column. It was difficult. It’s going to be difficult for a lot of people. You can see people revisiting this part of their lives that they wanted to forget about. I don’t like to think about what school was like for me. It kills me when Terry talks about it because he suffered so much. The thing that was also difficult, we didn’t want to seem like we are bragging, but we wanted to talk about the things that are good and meaningful and give us joy, like going snowboarding or going to Paris. We don’t want to seem elitist. And we didn’t want to wallow in pain. We want to give kids hope for a future life that has pleasure and joy and family.
Q. How is the channel going to work?
A.We want people to post their own videos and send me a link. I can select them and add it to the page. The Web site is www.YouTube.com/ItGetsBetterProject. It’s going to be interesting to see what comes in. I don’t want it to be “lifestyles of the gay and fabulous.” What we want to say to kids is that if you don’t win the economic lottery, and most people don’t, you can have a good and decent and fun life that brings love.
Q. The first line of your video is, “High school was bad….” What kinds of things did you and your partner have to deal with in high school and middle school?
A. It was late grade school that was hard for me. I was really different, my head was in the clouds. I liked musicals. I didn’t make friends or hang out with people. Then I found theater. I got picked on a lot, even by teachers too. I liked to listen to musicals and bake, and my homeroom teacher found out and mocked me in front of the whole class for baking. I got beat up a couple of times in the schoolyard. It’s nothing compared to what Terry went through. He was beat up every day, stuffed into bathroom stalls. He could barely walk down the halls without being attacked. His parents went and spoke to the administrators and were told that they wouldn’t do anything so long as he insisted on acting the way he acted and walking the way he walked and talking the way he talked, and he was bringing it on himself.
Q. Would hearing from gay adults that your life eventually would get better have helped you back then?
A. It did help me. When I was in high school I got involved in the fringe theater scene in Chicago, and I met some openly gay people. I could see that it got better, that they were happy and loved and supported. I saw with my own eyes that it got better.
Q. Have you heard from any teenagers yet since posting the first video this week?
A. I’ve heard from bunches. I’ve gotten 3,000 e-mails in the first 24 hours. The ones that are really moving are the ones from straight kids who are telling me that they are e-mailing the link to their picked-on gay classmates and friends who need to see it.
Diplomats face security problems in Iraq
Now that most U.S. military forces have left Iraq, the American diplomats left behind face serious security problems the State Department is ill-prepared to tackle.
That's the grave message the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan presented to Congress on Thursday.
Much of the security once provided by the military will have to be done by private contractors, yet the department does not have the money to hire the number needed nor the capability to manage them.
"Even if State could obtain the funds for more than doubling its private-security force, it is not clear that it has the trained personnel to manage and oversee contract performance of a kind that has already shown the potential for creating tragic incidents and frayed relations with host countries," Michael Thibault, commission co-chairman, said in a statement to the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee.
A July 12 report by the commission said the State Department has about 2,700 private-security contractors in Iraq but will need up to 7,000. It goes on to cite a troubling situation beset by "weaknesses in contract management and oversight, not to mention funding and hiring challenges."
The problem is even more complicated because Iraq "appears unable to provide normal host-country security and services," Thibault said.
The Pentagon has worked with the State Department but could provide much more help even as the military withdraws from Iraq. The Defense Department has yet to respond to a six-month-old State Department request for assistance seeking, among other things, helicopters, trucks and mine-resistant vehicles.
The July report quotes an April 7 letter containing the request from Under Secretary of State Patrick Kennedy. The letter said resources of the department's Diplomatic Security Service are "inadequate to the extreme challenges in Iraq."
Citing the lack of response, committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said the Pentagon's "apparent lack of cooperation is unacceptable." A Defense Department spokeswoman said the Pentagon is preparing a reply.
The letter, the report and the commission's testimony draw a disturbing picture of a State Department that is not equipped to deal with its biggest job ever.
"After the departure of U.S. Forces, we will continue to have a critical need for logistical and life support of a magnitude and scale of complexity that is unprecedented in the history of the Department of State," Kennedy said.
Without that assistance, the department would be forced to rely on less effective equipment and "as a result, the security of [State] personnel in Iraq will be degraded significantly, and we can expect increased casualties," Kennedy warned.
For example, Thibault told the committee about a "counter battery system" that allows the military to determine the location of rocket or mortar launches against U.S. positions. "As a result, enemy insurgents seldom fire more than one rocket, as they know they will be targeted," he said.
But the State Department does not have that capability.
"Enemy insurgents will be delighted when they learn and experience that they will not be immediately targeted and brought under fire by the military. Where our enemies worked very hard to launch a single rocket, there will be little reason not to launch entire batteries of rockets," Thibault said. "The safety of Americans, government and contractor employees will likely be jeopardized. This is simply unacceptable."
This has upset members of the committee, including the top Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa of California. He complained that "the government is inadequately prepared to ensure that our diplomatic personnel are properly supplied and protected, now that our combat troops have withdrawn from Iraq."
The report lists 14 security related jobs that are a good fit for the military but are not in a diplomat's job description, including recovering dead and wounded personnel, recovering downed aircraft and bomb disposal.
If the department does not have enough private contractors to do those jobs, who will? And if contractors do those jobs, will they cross the line and perform inherently government functions that are the province of government personnel?
"Even basic questions of what military equipment will be transferred to the State Department and who will apply rules for the use of force still have not been settled," Towns said.
All of this isn't the State Department's fault, Thibault said. The department, he said, has been dealt a bad hand that includes "unknown contract and program support from the Department of Defense; funding limitations likely to impact mission capability; and the need to contract for and perform functions that have never been done by their department."
The devastating consequences of the war against Iraq are not over yet.
Friday, September 24, 2010
For those not familiary with grammatical cases, they help you tell what the function of a noun or pronoun is in a sentence.
We don't have a lot of cases in English. We have three: nominative (pronouns like I or she), accusative/dative (objective pronouns like me or us), and genitive (possessive pronouns like my, mine, hers, ours). Ms. Green at Lamar County High School would be so proud of me.
So anyway, we have three cases in English. We don't think about them much because we don't really decline endings based on case. Rather, we use word order to designate meaning. An example from my book today: "the girl gives the teacher the book" and "the teacher gives the girl the book" mean different things, and we derive the meaning from the order.
Not so in many case languages. Meaning is derived not from the order of the words but from the endings on the words. And the endings change on nouns, pronouns, adjectives...
Like I said, English has three cases, which you deal with primarily in terms of pronouns. Russian, on the other hand, has six cases.
Yes, I said Estonian has FOURTEEN cases. Each with different endings, in fact, each with several different endings. And the endings differ depending on whether the noun is singular or plural.
And you don't have to know the cases just to sound grammatically correct. You have to know them to understand what is being said. Because they don't say you are without something. They change the ending. Miss the ending, you miss that they are saying there is NOT something. Or that something has changed into something else. Or that something came from somewhere else.
I should have known, when my Russian teacher said Estonian was hard, that this was a bad sign.
Thankfully, I have 41 more weeks to figure it all out.
Somehow that doesn't seem like nearly long enough!
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Today was a day of that second kind.
I blame one of my classmates.
She was able to accurately use a newly placed chart in our classroom to guess at the proper endings for cases (did I mention we have FOURTEEN cases??) that we have yet to cover. Which left me feeling like holy crap, I am so far behind! How can I not know any of this?
Of course, we haven't studied it yet, so how would I? But you might have gathered we FSOs are a competative bunch, especially with ourselves. So while I don't feel the need to be better than anyone else in the class, I do (unrealistically) feel like I should know everything we HAVE covered perfectly. So to suddenly think I had missed something made me panic. To realize that even though I hadn't missed anything but that there was SO MUCH we haven't even broached made my brain cramp.
And then we went to area studies...
I mentioned last week the poor planning that went into room size. So I was delighted to see we moved rooms this week. Even so, I decided I would get to the room early just to make sure I got a seat, and I would eat my lunch there before area studies began.
Glad I did.
This room seems bigger and better laid out...and yet as I counted, it seems to be that fewer people actually got to sit at the table than did last week.
Seriously, isn't there a room that will fit 46 people? Are we really going to have people sitting on cabinets for the next 40 weeks?
Ambassador Guest to Lead U.S. Delegation to International Human Rights Conference
The State Department has asked Michael Guest, a Senior Advisor to the Council for Global Equality, to lead the U.S. delegation to an upcoming human rights review conference to be held in Poland. The conference, to be held September 30-October 8 in Warsaw, will review the degree to which the 56 member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which embraces all of North America and Europe, are implementing their international human rights commitments. The Warsaw meeting is the first step in preparations for a Summit-level OSCE meeting in Kazakhstan later this year.
During his previous 26-year State Department career, Ambassador Guest worked directly on OSCE policy, as well as on broader human rights policy concerns. He retired in December 2007, in protest of State Department regulations that discriminated against gay and lesbian Foreign Service personnel. His career displays a record of commitment to the ideals that underlay the creation of the OSCE. We salute the State Department for tapping him to lead efforts in Warsaw to reaffirm the transatlantic community's commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms.
This is the first time that the United States has named an openly gay individual to serve on its official delegation to an OSCE conference. Of note, the United States delegation to a related OSCE human rights conference last year raised, for the first time, concerns over violence directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender minorities in many states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This issue is expected to be a feature of the Warsaw discussions, along with other U.S. concerns about challenges to journalist protections, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
So remind me not to study Dutch. I would really like to get my German back, minus the Hebrew interference.
There were probably 30 or so of us in the room (including Seth from over at Fabling...Sunny was on a playdate), and each person brought something to eat. I think the idea was that we bring something from the country we were going to, and thankfully our teacher, Kaia, brought something Estonian (a beet and garlic salad that was pretty good!) for us. As for me and my classmates, we brought the finest Harris Teeter had to offer. That seemed to be a trend among the other students as well. But thanks to the instructors, there were some great meatballs (Swedish?) and potatoes (not sure where they came from but my grandfather used to make some just like them).
I brought a little fruit and cheese tray...someone stuck some Finnish flags in my cheese and I had to make those go away. Speaking of which, the Danish teacher told our teacher a story about how in 1249, when the Vikings were in Estonia, the Danish flag came down from Heaven and that was how they knew they would win.
She told me that she told my teacher the story, and I suggested that perhaps Kaia didn't like the story as much as she did!
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Okay, I am not really into bingo...I was raised Catholic, so the bingo gene is probably in there somewhere, but perhaps it will only emerge once I am a retiree.
But we played in class today with our new numbers, and it was pretty fun. And I won twice, largely because even though both times there was a tie, I have a faster (bigger? Don't answer that) mouth.
Also in class today, I learned that I am not as anonymous as even I think I am.
Oh I know I have joked (half seriously) that how many lesbian, American Indian, former archaeologist, PD-coned officers from South Carolina can there be in the State Department (my guess is one). And friend's will sometimes tell me they liked a particular post I've written (especially the ones who are also Facebook friends, because they can see the blogposts there). But today, one of my classmate's had a friend stop by the class. I introduced myself to her.
And she said, "Oh, I read your blog."
And I had never before met this person in my life.
Monday, September 20, 2010
Today was one of those days.
I really like studying language, even when it is hard. It is like a great puzzle. One of the reasons I liked writing poetry so much when I was young (which begs the question of why I don't still write it, to which I have no answer because I hadn't even thought about it until just now...I'll get back to you on that one...) is because to do it well, you need a deep understanding of the language.
I'll admit it. I am a grammar geek. Dr. Price (of the University of South Carolina School of Journalism), if you are out there reading this, you are at least partly to blame.
Today, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, the temperature was perfect, and I was getting paid to do something that is really a lot of fun. Just amazing.
Also amazing was this little guy. I'd say he was a good five inches long...the quarter is there for scale. I moved him off of the sidewalk right after I took the picture so he didn't get stepped on. I can't believe one of the bazillion geese on campus didn't eat him.
Friday, September 17, 2010
Diplomacy and National Security: the Politicization of Ambassadorial Appointments
Boring ! Fuggetaboutit ! It’s part of the system ! Some of them are really good! There are plenty of duds in the service, too! Have you never heard of American exceptionalism? And what does it have to do with national security? Yawn….
One more try! This frustrated champion of professionalism has in the past met with silence, scorn and rolling eyes when hoping to call attention to what he believes to be a major issue in any discussion of national security: the appointment of wealthy supporters and political or personal cronies to jobs as ambassadors of the United States of America abroad. It matters not that they are dispatched for the most part “only” to the Bushies’ Old Europe or other oh-so-yesterday friends or enemies (China, Japan) or watering holes in the sun. Nor does it matter that not all such appointees are wealthy donors but rather distinguished professors or men of steel who have proven their worth on the battlefield.
The habit has become entrenched over the past sixty years, with fairly consistent percentages of ambassadorial appointments going to career officers (69%) and outsiders (31%). Presidents of both political parties have been loyal to that tradition and certain details: since 1960, 72% of Western European and 73% of Caribbean posts have gone to friends and fund-raisers; since 1980, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Japan have each hosted one American careerist as against from six to nine politicos. President Barack Obama has trumped them all, increasing the number of political appointments by a third: as of September 13, 40.6% of ambassadorial posts have gone to non-career persons since his inauguration, with 68% to Europe as a whole and 78% to the United Nations and its specialized agencies. Throw in Afghanistan, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa and the African Union, and you get the idea. (Which governments and peoples are most offended can be debated: those who are saddled with non-professionals, or those who don’t rate a presidential friend?)
The facts and figures are available on the website of the American Foreign Service Association, which under the leadership of President Susan Johnson has put the issue high on its agenda and tied it directly to our national security: “President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with congressional leaders from both parties, have called for strengthening the Department of State, our premier foreign policy institution. In doing so, they join their voices with those who have long argued that diplomacy is a major instrument of national security…The appointment of non-career individuals, however accomplished in their own field, to lead America’s important diplomatic missions abroad should be exceptional and circumscribed….”
Would that the President and Secretary Clinton had themselves made that linkage. While it is true that the regional bureaus at State are led at the highest levels by career officers or outsiders with proven expertise, our senior representatives abroad are often men or women with no qualifications for the job but who played important roles of one sort or another in the last presidential election. It is unlikely that the President selected them all, for the Secretary, Vice President Biden and, perhaps, others at the White House all had political debts to pay off or buddies to reward, but the appointments are the President’s responsibility – in every sense of the word. And who is really paying off those debts? It is the American tax-payer who foots the bill for salaries, first-class travel, seriously opulent and staffed residences, armored cars and chauffeurs and body-guards and representational expenses. Should not the tax-payer have the benefit of thinking that his contribution helps serve his country rather than supporting a high life style for a corporate donor? Or perhaps he should content himself with the thought that the appointment of fat cats is no more than a minor reflection of the proper role of money in politics under the First Amendment (as recently confirmed by the Supreme Court).
The reactions cited at the start of this diatribe were not made up, and the most discouraging thing for me is that Foreign Service Officers, active and retired, who may have read my earlier attempts to bring this issue to the fore are among the most bored. AFSA, however, in addition to tracking and publishing ambassadorial appointments has given high priority to the need for required education and training on the way toward building a diplomatic corps that qualifies in every way as a profession. (See the May 2010 issue of the Foreign Service Journal.) This approach can serve over time to reduce political appointments, but we must not wait that long. FSOs should not shy from speaking out for fear of being labeled clubby or resentful of having failed to land a post of their own.
As I recently (and learnedly, having consulted my etymological dictionary) told a class of French university students, “to negotiate” means no more or less than “to do business.” When our diplomats negotiate with foreign officials, the business at hand is, in one way or another, and with varying degrees of importance and urgency, our national security. When our ambassadors do it, the stakes are often high. And there I rest my case for professionalism and an end to political appointments.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
I suspect it is just a matter of convenience, though for whom, I couldn't tell you. There certainly are enough students to justify two separate classes, or at least a bigger classroom. His pre-prepared attendance sheet listed 32 students. Another 14 showed up. All of us are going to one of these five countries, so no one was there by mistake. So all 46 of us had to cram into a too small and too stuffy room...the unlucky ones who didn't get there right on time got stuck in chairs against the far wall or sitting on cabinets. I hope they get us a better room, but I am not optimistic.
Because of the setup of the room, my fallback plan for when class gets dull won't work. During my last time in area studies six years ago, we were in sort of an auditorium. The room was large enough that if I cut my 3x5 flash cards into 4, they were small enough that I could study to stay awake rather than poke my eyes out with pencils. Not sure this will work here. I am hopeful, however, that this area studies will be a bit less, uh, political, than the last. There are no unbiased opinions where the Middle East is concerned.
Speaking of flash cards, if you are in language studies, you can borrow a copy of rapid rote to put on your home computer. So I got a copy today and loaded it up...I have loaded all of my vocabulary minus today's new words on. I used it in the lab and I think it really works. At least I am willing to give it a shot.
According to my list, I have a vocabulary of roughly 200 words. And after getting a few more verbs today, I can be, speak, study, live, know and forget. Probably forgetting is what I will do the most of!
Speaking of forgetting, I almost forgot to tell you that what we did in area studies today was watch the movie "Everything is Illuminated" (hence the post title). A good movie...I recommend it.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Monday, September 13, 2010
Several bloggers from the Future FS blogroll are in the current class. They are:
A Diplomat's Wife
Andrew and Samathan Grillos
Freedom for Diplomacy
The Life Diplomatic
The Uncommon Life
Wanderings of a Cheerful Stoic (formerly Something Witty This Way Comes)
We Be Rolling Stones
Welcome to all of you! I hope you had a great first day at Main State and I look forward to seeing you at FSI. I'll be one of the 700+ language students wandering around in a fog with brain cramps.
It is called Spectrummy Mummy, and it is written by a Foreign Service spouse who has a daughter with Asperger's Syndrome. She talks a lot about having a special needs child, but also about navigating those waters while in the Foreign Service.
I suspect there are a lot of folks, both inside the Service and considering joining us, who could benefit from readying her.
I recommend you check her out.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Gay Saudi Diplomat, Ali Ahmad Asseri, Seeks Asylum In U.S.
WASHINGTON — A Saudi diplomat in Los Angeles reportedly has asked for political asylum in the United States, claiming his life is in danger if he is returned to Saudi Arabia.
The report Saturday by NBC News quoted the diplomat, Ali Ahmad Asseri, as saying that Saudi officials have ordered him back to his country because he is gay and had become a close friend to a Jewish woman. Asseri in a letter also reportedly criticized the role of militant imams in Saudi society.
NBC said that Asseri, who is first secretary of the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles, was questioned by the Department of Homeland Security after he applied for asylum. The department declined comment to The Associated Press when asked about the diplomat. A call to Asseri's lawyer was not returned Saturday.
Saturday, September 11, 2010
I thought my path was an an archaeologist, but when I watched the planes slam into the towers and sat with my classes trying to help my undergrads understand what was happening when none of us understood what was happening, I wondered if what I was doing mattered. Whether there was something else I should be doing.
Not long thereafter, my wife got the call to join the Service. And not long after that, I decided to take the test, not really believing I would make it in.
There were lots of reasons for it. I wanted us to be together. The work she was doing seemed interesting and meaningful and her colleagues seemed intelligent, competent and nice. Just the sort of folks you want to work with.
But a big part was also that I really wanted to serve.
And so I am.
I hope today you will keep in your thoughts and prayers those who died nine years ago, their loved ones who continue to struggle with their loss, and those who serve this country in the military and Foreign Service, many of us in no small part because of the events of that day.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Clinton to State employees: Seek mental health help if you need it
Following calls by the State Department Inspector General's office to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health and stress treatment, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is calling on employees to seek help without fear of retribution.
"Seeking help is a sign of responsibility and it is not a threat to your security clearance," Clinton wrote in an e-mail sent to all State employees Sept. 7. "No one at State has lost a clearance because he or she sought mental health counseling or treatment. In fact, Diplomatic Security has advised that receiving recommended treatment for mental health concerns is a favorable factor during security clearance determinations. For all of us, managing our mental health is an essential part of maintaining our well-being, and recognizing the need for help is a sign of maturity and professionalism. Talking to someone can make all the difference in the world."
In a July report, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) concluded that mental health services for employees returning from high-stress or high-threat postings was improving, but that there was still a stigma attached to employees seeking help. The OIG called on State to issue a high-level statement encouraging returning diplomats to use the mental health tools at their disposal. With Clinton's e-mail, it appears that advice has been heeded.
There are about 800 State Department employees currently deployed in high-stress or high-threat environments, according to the report.
State has been ramping up its efforts to provide mental health support to its employees. In 2009, it created a Deployment Stress Management Program (DSMP) in the Office of Medical Services (MED) and has increased the number of mental health-care professionals at the ready. There is also a consultation and interview process, known as the High Stress Assignment Outbrief, for Foreign Service officers when they get back from the field. However, less than 60 percent of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan go through it and, for other high-stress postings, the usage rate is much lower.
There are more social workers and psychiatrists than ever at the U.S. embassies in Baghdad and Kabul, but according to the OIG it is unclear whether there are enough.
Clinton touted the outbrief program in her e-mail but aimed her message at all State Department and USAID employees, not just those returning from a hazardous environment.
"I know that your service here comes with sacrifice, both for you and your families, and with unique stresses," she wrote. "We are committed to ensuring that every member of the State Department and USAID family has all the support they need. That's why we've made it a priority to provide access to social workers and mental health counselors, a mandatory high-stress outbrief program and training for anyone who seeks it and particularly for those who are returning from or working with returnees from high-stress posts."
Read the entire note after the jump:
THE SECRETARY OF STATE
Dear Friends and Colleagues:
As the summer winds down, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your hard work, commitment to excellence, and service to our country. At the State Department and USAID, we work long hours on complex problems with few clear-cut solutions. Many of you serve in dangerous and remote posts, often far away from friends and loved ones. Your dedication is inspiring, and you have my gratitude and that of President Obama and the American people as well.
I know that your service here comes with sacrifice, both for you and your families, and with unique stresses. We are committed to ensuring that every member of the State Department and USAID family has all the support they need. That's why we've made it a priority to provide access to social workers and mental health counselors, a mandatory high-stress outbrief program and training for anyone who seeks it and particularly for those who are returning from or working with returnees from high-stress posts.
These are important resources and I hope more of you will take advantage of them in the future.
Seeking help is a sign of responsibility and it is not a threat to your security clearance. No one at State has lost a clearance because he or she sought mental health counseling or treatment. In fact, Diplomatic Security has advised that receiving recommended treatment for mental health concerns is a favorable factor during security clearance determinations. For all of us, managing our mental health is an essential part of maintaining our well-being, and recognizing the need for help is a sign of maturity and professionalism. Talking to someone can make all the difference in the world.
To learn more about the Department's Deployment Stress Management Program and the resources available to you and your family through the State Department, I encourage you to visit MED's website at:
If you have questions about security clearances, you can always contact the Office of Personnel Security and Suitability Customer Service Center at 1-866-643-4636 or send an e-mail to
As we head into the fall and the holidays to come, please consider making use of the excellent programs and staff that are available.
We have a lot to do, and I know you are up to the job. I am proud of the work we are doing together every day on behalf of our nation. It is an honor to be your Secretary and I look forward to all we will continue to achieve together.
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Dead Men Working discussed the matter further here.
Thursday, September 09, 2010
The second is that you should check the class schedule very carefully, especially if you are not a morning person. Otherwise, you might arrive at 7:40 am for a class that starts three hours later.
Now, here is a note of interest about language training from a reader who would know:
First, with regards to the acronym I couldn't identify: "It means Language Training Supervisor."
Now here is the gem: "More trivia: the original title for the position was "Scientific Linguist" until the late 80s, when FSI finally decided that language learning should differ at least somewhat from canine obedience training (behaviorist stimulus-response drills)."
And now you know the rest of the story!
State Department Innovator Goes to Google
INTERVIEW BY CHRISTINA LARSON
Jared Cohen, a high-profile advocate of the State Department's forays into "21st-century statecraft," is leaving Foggy Bottom for New York. In an exclusive interview with FP, he talks about his time at State and his new project: building a "think/do tank" called Google Ideas.
On Thursday Sept. 2, Jared Cohen walked out of the Truman Building with his luggage for a final time, after four years on the State Department's Policy Planning staff, serving under both the Bush and Obama administrations. During his time in government, Cohen, who will be 29 in November, attracted much attention -- both praise and controversy -- for his unconventional thinking about statecraft: for calling on his friend Jack Dorsey to keep Twitter from going through with a scheduled maintenance shutdown during the heady days of the Iranian election last summer; for leading delegations of technology executives, including Google's Eric Schmidt, to troubleshoot problems in Iraq; and for tweeting his observations, with a touch some critics found too lighthearted, to his 300,000-plus digital followers.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of Policy Planning for the last year and a half, says his exuberance will be missed: "Jared's time with the Policy Planning staff was a period in which we moved from not only writing memos proposing new ideas, but also finding ways to put those ideas into practice as an initial proof of concept. We are known as the Secretary of State's think tank, but we have become a think/do tank."
In mid-October, Cohen will begin his new job as director of Google Ideas, a new division of the search giant that he is helping to launch. He will also be, as of Tuesday Sept. 7, an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, focusing on counter-radicalization, innovation, technology, and statecraft. Cohen is the author of two books, Children of Jihad and One Hundred Days of Silence, and despite his interest in all things new media, is also the owner of an extensive collection of rare books, presidential autographs, and 19th-century campaign memorabilia.
Cohen chatted with FP about his new gig at Google, what he's learned at State, where his interest in the intersection of technology and foreign policy began, and what he thinks his critics get wrong. Excerpts:
Foreign Policy: While you were a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, you made your first trip to Iran for a research project. I understand that project didn't work out as planned, but the time you spent in Iran, which you later wrote about in the book Children of Jihad, spurred your inquiry into unexpected uses of technology. Tell us about that.
Jared Cohen: What I had wanted to focus on was interviewing opposition leaders, government officials, and reformers. I did interview the Iranian vice president and some opposition leaders. But the Revolutionary Guards came into my room in the middle of the night and found a list of people I wanted to interview. That made my original plan impossible, but ended up being one of the most important things to happen because in the absence of my original research being viable, I ended up just wandering the country looking for friends to hang out with.
It became very clear to me that I had gone to Iran wanting to study the wrong opposition. I became obsessed with this idea that the real opposition in Iran is the 67 percent that's under the age of 30, and all I wanted to do was meet as many of them as possible. Even the ones that are part of that counternarrative like the basijis and the pro-regime ones.
Where it became about technology was I had this experience: I was in Shiraz, in the south, at one of these very busy intersections and all these kids --- there was five or six different alleyways all meeting, it was a very, very busy part -- and it was filled with kids perched against the sides of shops all looking at their cell phones. And I asked one: "What are you doing?"
And he said "Oh, this is where we use Bluetooth." He was trying to explain, "This is how I'm figuring out what I'm doing tonight." Another person was trying to recruit a bassist for their band; only one or two doing something that could be loosely interpreted as doing something politically relevant. It was mostly social and recreational. I asked one [youth]: "Aren't you worried? You're doing this right in the open; aren't you worried you're going to get caught?" He looked at me and said, "Oh, nobody over 30 knows what Bluetooth is."
The conclusion I came to there is there's two gaps: There's a generation gap between young people who are socialized and brought up with these technologies and an older generation that's coming a bit late to them (and that questions them before they embrace them); there are downsides to both. And there's an innovation gap between companies that innovate for luxury environments -- i.e., free and open societies -- and repressed populations which use things innovatively.
FP: Let's talk about your time at the State Department. Could you pick one of the technology delegations you led and just narrate it? We hear a lot about "technology delegations," but don't really know what that phrase means.
JC: I might as well start with the first one. The first technology delegation [the State Department] did was in April of 2009 to Iraq: It was me and nine techies from the private sector, including representatives from Google and YouTube.
We met with senior government officials in and around Baghdad. Then we met with American troops, NGOs, private-sector companies, like cell-phone carriers. We met with professors and academics and academic administrators. We met with tons of students. I led the delegation, and it was staffed by people at the embassy; I was the only person from Washington.
I had a very good relationship with the public affairs counselor there, Adam Ereli, who is a really, really smart "push the envelope" kind of guy, who had pitched an idea to me to get some professors out [to Iraq]. Now, we [at the State Department] often lead delegations of academics and NGOs to countries around the world, but we hadn't led delegations of people with expertise on tools. So, I thought: Why don't we take a delegation of technology executives to Iraq?
The hypothesis was very simple: If you connect people that have expertise on tools with people that have expertise on Iraq, something innovative may happen. I just had an intuition this could lead to something interesting. It just sounded right, and the embassy thought it sounded right. The idea was: "Let's see if this can result in concrete deliverables that can provide new solutions to old challenges."
FP: Can you talk about some concrete outcomes? Do you think the trip succeeded?
JC: A lot of deliverables that came out of that trip: We created a program called the U.S.-Iraq internship program, for example. We figured that instead of just bringing Iraqi students on exchanges to the United States to study at high schools and universities, let's create internships for them at technology and other start-ups to immerse them in the entrepreneurial "garage culture." So now we're bringing young Iraqi engineers to the U.S. to work for Twitter, Howcast, AT&T, etc. After they go back to Iraq, based on the connections they built in the U.S. and based on what they've learned in the U.S., they're now building their own networks -- what they believe will be their version of Silicon Valley for Iraq. They're the pioneers of entrepreneurship in a post-Saddam Iraq.
Also, the Museum Project was really cool. Iraq has this amazing national museum, and it's an incredible source of pride. Sixty to 70 percent of the museum artifacts that were stolen in recent years have been returned, but the museum exists in a part of Iraq that is sufficiently turbulent that it is not open to the public. We figured that if people can't go there, let's create a virtual presence for it. So we partnered with about 10 different companies. Google, for instance, sent engineers out and digitized the entire museum with street-view technology, literally rolling trolleys around the museum, taking images of things, and built this whole virtual platform. We had a company called Blue State Digital, which did the Obama campaign's tech stuff, build it out, and Howcast, an online video company, created accompanying "how-to" videos -- like how to tell if your Iraqi antiquity is stolen and what to do about it.
These things aren't going to change the face of Iraq, but what I was trying to do was show how these technology delegations can lead to deliverables that are funded and driven in part by the private sector. While small in this early piloted stage, maybe this can actually be a methodology that can be scaled up at a later date.
FP: Talk about the evolution of thinking behind State Department initiatives now identified as "21st-century statecraft."
JC: The core of it, to me, is bringing together nontraditional partners to do multistakeholder initiatives. The State Department's Policy Planning staff, which is where I've worked for four years, is typically thought of as the secretary of state's personal think tank. Our job is to generate ideas, think out of the box, think long term, and we have the most valuable resource of all, which is the resource of time. We are the only entity, really, in the State Department, maybe the U.S. government, that has the mandate to sit around and think big thoughts and think ahead and put pieces together.
In the four years that I've been in policy planning, I've worked for three excellent directors: Steve Krasner, David Gordon, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who have all transformed it more into a think/do-tank. I look at the Policy Planning staff now as the secretary of state's personal think tank, but also the secretary of state's personal start-up. I often say Policy Planning is very analogous to a venture capital firm. A venture capital firm sees an interesting idea and puts money behind it; in Policy Planning, we look for promising ideas and then put contacts and relationships behind it.
The U.S. government is uniquely positioned to be the world's greatest matchmaker, and I don't mean that as a jargony statement. With all of our embassies and consulates around the world, the fact that people will take our phone calls and the fact that we have a really good bird's-eye view into how different stakeholders can help address different challenges [means] we can play matchmaker well. That's why when you hear people within State now saying something like "statecraft is as much about building connections as it is doing negotiations," it's actually something that has meaning.
Of course, we still do negotiations; we still do representation; we still do government-to-government exchanges. But it's about using new tools and working with new kinds of stakeholders. The technology delegations are a great example.
FP: So it's more about bringing together different problem-solvers than about technology per se?
JC: So here's what frustrates me. There are two common misperceptions about the technology aspect of 21st-century statecraft. The first is that the technology side of 21st-century statecraft is just about State Department officials using Twitter and blogging more -- in other words, that embracing technology is just about more effectively and innovatively communicating and advocating our policy. I think technology is a valuable tool for that, but to me that's public diplomacy 2.0.
When I think about 21st century statecraft, I think about technology being used as a tool to empower citizens, to promote greater accountability and transparency, to do capacity building. At its core, what technology does is it connects people to information, which is new media; it connects people to each other, which is social media; and then there's a far more exciting path that we're going down now, which is that technology is a tool to connect people to actual resources -- like mobile banking or mobile money transfers or telemedicine.
My second frustration is that I embrace technology, but not without an understanding of what the challenges are. My own thinking has evolved over the years. I think when I wrote Children of Jihad, I wrote it with a very optimistic view of what technology can do; today I maintain that optimistic view, but I'm also aware of the challenges we have. So I would say I'm not a techno-utopian, but I'm a techno-pragmatist. I get the downsides of technology; in fact, I'm very concerned about the downsides of technology.
FP: Do you worry that efforts encouraging, or enabling, people to use social media in a place like Iran may be inviting them -- especially dissenters and human rights activists -- to put themselves at greater risk, with more personal information online? In a worst-case scenario, do you worry about enabling the surveillance operations of a police state?
JC: Technology is a tool, and it's a platform. Nobody gets arrested for being a blogger; people get arrested for dissent. Nobody gets arrested for putting information about themselves online; they get arrested for being an activist. I'm a strong believer in the fact that you should not blame the tools; you should blame the circumstances.
FP: Going forward, tell us about your future work at Google.
JC: I am going to be director of a new division at Google called Google Ideas. And it's basically a think/do tank. Much of the model for it is built off of my experiences on the Policy Planning staff. It's not designed to be, "Let's pool all of Google's resources and tackle global challenges."
In the same way Policy Planning works by bringing together a lot of stakeholders in government, out of government, and across different sectors, so, too, will Google Ideas do something very similar. And the range of challenges that it may focus on include everything from the sort of hard challenges like counterterrorism, counterradicalization, and nonproliferation, to some of the ones people might expect it to focus on, like development and citizen empowerment.
What I'm interested in is the SWAT-team model of building teams of stakeholders with different resources and perspectives to troubleshoot challenges. So the reason I say it's a think/do tank is you need a comprehensive approach to think about and tackle challenges in different kinds of ways. In government, we used to refer to a "whole of government" approach, meaning work with multiple agencies to leverage ideas and resources; Google Ideas will take a "whole of society" approach.
FP: What can you do at Google that wasn't possible at the State Department?
JC: There are things the private sector can do that the U.S. government can't do. The big thing is the resources and the capabilities. There are not a couple hundred [computer] engineers in the State Department that can build things; that's just not what government does. You don't necessarily have some of the financial resources to put behind these things. It's really hard to bring talented young people in; there are not a lot mechanisms to do it. On some topics, it's very sensitive for government to be the one doing this.
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
She also exposed me for the dork that I am, when she asked the 32ish of us in there who had already purchased 3x5 index cards and sharpees, and I was one of only two to raise their hands. (But in my defense, I needed a legal pad and they had pretty colored ones at the store, which is almost like a shiny thing). Now they have all of that on computer, and if I had a cooler phone than I do (damn you AT&T and your monopoly on the iPhone! Let my people (Verizon) have it!), I could even have them on my phone. Now that could be a fun way to do flash cards!
She also showed us how we could get access to Rosetta Stone for free, but warned us that we will "outgrow" it within three weeks. Yep, language learning at FSI by firehose. Fear the firehose!
Of course, my teacher then proceeded to lull us what I know will be a false sense of security by showing us all the cognates in this language (despite the fact that my friend who was in this course last year told me there weren't). Awesome! After day one, I have a maybe 50 word vocabulary. But I know it is coming. The firehose is coming.
And we will all be drinking from it.
Tuesday, September 07, 2010
Hence the tiny bubbles...I filled in a lot of them today (not as many as I could have...I opted against taking the Myers-Briggs AGAIN, since I took it in A-100 and again this past year in leadership training and several times before that...yep, I am still an ENTJ. So let's just not waste that application form, which apparently costs 10 bucks a pop. My gift to the taxpayers).
The orientation part was a bit dull, useful only in terms of the introductions of the staff for any of us who are NOT starting our first language course at FSI. Yep, I already know what the scores stand for and how the progress tests are done. But I am sure the new students found that helpful.
The second part of orientation, which is with our language's LTS (can't remember what that acronym stands for...language something supervisor I think), was slightly more useful, as it answered the burning question of where to we hand in our time sheets. I mean really, I love my job, but I'm not coming if you don't pay me. I also got to meet the two other folks who will be in my class (a huge relief because at one point, I thought I would be spending the whole 44 weeks alone!).
As for the rest of the non-Myers-Briggs bubbles, I did re-do them, despite having done them six years ago, the last time I started language training. Those bubbles will tell me what my learning style, and I'd bet that hasn't changed either.
I have "thin boundaries," meaning I will absorb stuff from whatever method you use to teach me. I think it helps me as a language learner (along with the help I got from my granddad teaching me German when I was a kid - Thanks, Granddaddy!).
I like the idea behind them testing for learning styles. The idea is that they figure out how you learn best and either adapt the training to your style to the degree they can or they help you adapt yourself to the training they offer.
I didn't notice much when I took language before. Seemed to me that the training wasn't changed at all, and I wasn't told how to adapt to it...though to be fair, I never felt the need to go to them and ask for help with either. Maybe they do if you go ask. But it seemed mostly to me to be an interesting exercize in self-awareness but not much more useful than that.
And some of the questions made me worry they were checking on our mental health and not our learning style..."do you have trouble telling the difference between your dreams and reality?" "do you have trouble when you first wake up knowing you are awake?" No...I just have trouble BEING awake. I know I AM awake, I just want to go back to sleep.
So anyway...maybe they will use it more if I asked for assistance. Or maybe I will once again not ask. Because I already know my teacher is great...spies in previous classes sing her praises.
Tomorrow we begin some actually language study, which I am happy about, at 7:40 am, which may kill me.
Monday, September 06, 2010
And I have to go back to work tomorrow.
But at least I have a great trip to remember...hopefully it will give me fodder for all the things we have to come up with to talk about in language class, which starts tomorrow.
Because I have trouble finding things to say...I'm not much of a talker.
You believe that, right?
Saturday, September 04, 2010
We spent yesterday morning in Ketchikan, the salmon capital of the world (or so they told us). We took a tour that started at Saxman Native Village, where our guide told us about some of the totem poles they have there. I wish we could have spent more time there, but I was trying to pick a tour that offered some physical activity in addition to sight seeing. So I picked one that advertised a short nature walk on the way to a cannery tour. Well, by short, they meant like two minutes. The tour was a bit heavy on the cannery tour, which I was not really so interested in. I mean, do you really want to go from watching the salmon swim upstream outside the cannery to watching a video of them chopping the heads off of the salmon at the cannery. Ick.
Anyway, we traveled to the village and cannery by bus but back to the ship by boat. We finally saw a bunch of eagles, and I even got some pictures of them. And they had apparently had four inches of rain the day before, so we saw places where whole parts of a hill had slid into the water.
Back in Ketchikan, we wandered around town for a bit. We saw salmon trying to swim up a rapid at Creek Street. That area is also known for having been the red light district of the town. We had some lunch (guess what we ate…) and got back onto the boat in the pouring rain. This area is actually a rain forest, so we have really lucked out with all the sunny weather we have gotten. We lined up to go back onto the ship under a breezeway, and the port security woman was trying to force us to direct our line out into the rain. She said, “It’s a rain forest! So of course it is raining!” Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you have to stand in it.
Back on board, I spent some time in the spa. We went to the casino for a while, but neither of us is much on gambling. So we gave ourselves $10 each. We left the casino with $14.25, so we didn’t lose much. And then last night, the café had death by chocolate. They had chocolate everything, including chocolate sushi (um…ick?). I settled on chocolate covered strawberries and bananas (so gotta get back to running after this cruise…one of our tour guides joked that the cruise policy was that we were required to eat every two hours. I haven’t been that bad, but I am sort of tired of food).
This evening we land in Victoria. I am not all that excited about it…I am sort of ready to be home. I miss the pets and our bed. We hit Seattle tomorrow morning and fly home Monday. Then it is back to FSI Tuesday.
Okay, that part I am NOT ready for.
Saxman Village Totem Pole
Eagle in Flight at George Inlet
Thursday, September 02, 2010
The views are incredible! We saw calving at the Margorie Glacier, though of course I couldn’t manage do get a picture of it. But it is amazing when it happens. You hear the crack of the ice, and then this hiss as the ice falls. When it hits the water, it sounds like a gun has gone off. And this in the very quiet backdrop of the park, which limits the number of cruise ships to two per day and the number of small boats to I think about three per day. And the park is only accessible by boat.
There is a ton of wildlife in the park, as you’d imagine. Folks on the ship saw both bears and wolves feasting on the carcass of a dead humpback whale that washed ashore last winter. The park service guide who came on board for the tour told us they have set up a motion detecting camera there and have gotten some great information on the animals who ate there, from bears to wolves to eagles and all sorts of small critters. But of course, that was on the side of the boat opposite where I could see, so I missed it. I saw the carcass on the trip back out, but there was nothing there (the guide said there was a brown bear on the beach near it, but all I could see through our zoom lens was a brown spot that wasn’t moving. I really think it was a bush). Ditto for the Orca my wife saw this evening while I was getting a glass of water (yesterday she saw a bear I missed…I am Bear Clan for pete’s sake! How does this happen??). I did get to see a cute little otter swimming right next to the boat, shell in paw, but in a recurring theme for this trip, I didn’t have my camera handy. I also saw some seals and some more humpback whales.
Tomorrow we arrive in Ketchikan, where I hear that there are bears to be seen near a cannery we are visiting. Bets on whether I either miss them or fail to have my camera handy?
Now for most sane people, this means nothing. But for my wife and the billions of others who apparently watch Deadliest Catch, this is a very big deal. She has a serious addiction to the show. She once asked me if an episode coming on was one she had seen before and I said, “Yes, this is the one where they catch some crabs and that guy gets hit with the crab pot.” And she said, “Oh yeah,” to which I cried, “They are ALL that episode!”
I seriously can not tell them apart. But she can. And the Time Bandit is one of the boats on the show. So she was very happy.
Our shore excursion for the day was a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier and a boat trip out to see whales. We saw lots of them, including one that leapt into the air and splashed down. That was pretty cool. We also saw an island packed with Stellar Sea Lions who were enjoying a rare sunny day. We were enjoying it too.
Stellar Sea Lions
We spend a lot of time out on the water, and I almost wish we had cut that trip a little shorter so we could have had more time on the glacier. The little we got to hike there reminded me of how much I miss hiking. We need to go more. My wife reminded me tonight that she actually started running not for marathons but to make hiking more fun. There was a waterfall that we could have hiked to given more time, and a second one coming out of the glacier that we could have gotten closer to.
Oh well. Next trip. One think being in the Foreign Service has taught me is that these sorts of trips don’t have to be once in a lifetime.
Today we docked in Scagway, Alaska. We had to leave really early for our trip to the Yukon Territory in Canada (we were supposed to leave at 10:50 but there were only 4 people from our ship signed up, so we joined the group from the Norwegian Star, including the owners of the Morgan Winery in Monterrey, California). It was my first time in Canada (I attempted to go once with my ex but we weren’t allowed in. I had a New York Drivers License and SC plates, which of course made the border guards think we were drug smugglers. We said we were going across to the Canadian side of the Mohawk reservation and he asked if we were Indian. I answered that I was, and so he said he had to run a check on her but that I was free to go (Indians are allowed unrestricted access to the reservation). Turned out she had bounced a check when she was in college and it had been turned over to the police, making it a felony in Canada. So she wasn’t allowed in).
So anyway, we made our way to Spirit Lake Lodge near Carcross (it used to be called Caribou Crossing, but they kept having their mail sent to other “crossings” so they changed the name). There we met Marvin and Diane, our guides. They took us on a one hour horseback ride (Diane had her two Pomeranians in her saddle bags…they apparently love to ride) followed by a one hour canoe ride on Spirit Lake. Then we were treated to a nice lunch followed by a scenic ride home. Our driver Paul was great.
Back in Scagway, we wandered through the town, which is mostly for the benefit of the tourists. Only 900 people live in Scagway. Today they were joined by 10,000 tourists! I was really happy for our little nine person excursion!