Sunday, March 31, 2013

Did You Think I wasn't paying Attention?

Warning: I am hopping up on my soapbox. No comments from trolls will be permitted, so don't waste your time.

Or maybe you thought I was living under a rock last week.

How else to explain my lack of posts on the topic you know is most dear to me. The topic that has made me, a life-long independent, into a single issue voter.

Same-sex marriage.

Or as I like to call it, marriage. Or marriage equality. Because my marriage license from Massachusetts looks like every other marriage license from Massachusetts.

So you can bet I was keenly aware that the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing two marriage equality cases this past week, one on Prop 8 and one on the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (seriously, is your marriage so fragile that my getting legally married destroyed it?).

The truth is, I am terrified.

I know rationally that they would be hard pressed to make things WORSE than they are. But I want them to be made better. I want to be certain my wife can inherit OUR home without paying inheritance taxes. That I can visit her in the hospital and make medical decisions if needed regardless of what state we are in. I want her to be able to bury me in the plots we have purchased without having to petition anyone to release my remains to her. I want my friends who have fallen in love with non-Americans to be able to petition for their spouse to become a citizen, just like my straight friends can now. I want all of the more than 1,100 rights and responsibilities that come with a federally recognized marriage so I can adequately protect my family.

And I want it now.

And frankly, I am tired of listening to the nay-sayers. "Think of the children." Yes, let's do. Forty five separate studies have found that children in loving two parent homes, regardless of the gender of those parents, do best. Not one has found anything detrimental from being raised by same-sex parents. And yes, some of these studies are recent, but some went on for decades. And let's think about the children in same-sex homes why don't we? Those same studies find that marriage provides a stability that is in the best interests of the children. Some 40,000 kids are being raised in same-sex homes in California alone. Don't those kids matter?

"But marriage is for procreation." Really? Do we do fertility tests before marriage? Are the infertile denied the right to marry?

"But marriage is a Judeo-Christian institution." Yes, and a Buddist, Muslim, American Indian, agnostic, and atheist one. Marriage is far older than any of our religions and we don't limit it to just Christians.

"My church will be forced to perform same-sex marriages." Wrong again. When I got married IN MY CHURCH (which recognizes my marriage...what about my freedom of religion?), there was a heterosexual couple who wanted to be married in the church. Except, they only wanted the trappings of a church wedding. They didn't actually want pre-marital counseling and such. And so my pastor refused to marry them. Because she wasn't required to marry them is they didn't meet the requirements of our faith. Just like synagogues are not required to marry Christians or Muslims and vice versa. So no, marriage equality won't mean you have to violate your precious bigotry.

"The country isn't ready for it." Since when is the country's readiness related to the constitutionality of an issue? When Loving v Virginia was decided, more than 76% of the country was opposed to interracial marriage (for the very same religious reasons that they now use to oppose marriage equality, by the way) and the court DID THE RIGHT THING ANYWAY. Because the Constitution protects the rights of the minority even when the majority doesn't like it. And for the record, the latest polls show that more than half the country supports marriage equality. The country is more "ready" for marriage equality than it was for interracial marriage.

"It will destroy traditional marriage." What tradition? Like being able to buy a wife for a goat and three cows? Being able to have a multiple wives and concubines? Like women being property (and being unalbe to own property)? Or husbands being able to legally rape their wives? Or maybe you didn't mean Biblical marriage. maybe you meant our more modern concepts of marriage. Like the races not being allowed to intermarry. Or like Brittany being able to get married and divorced in the space of a day. In fact, the danger to traditional marriage is not marriage equality  but divorce. And in states with marriage equality, divorce rates have GONE DOWN.

"I just think it is icky." Honestly, I think that is the bottom line. Some straight people don't get it. They think gays and lesbians have chosen something unnatural. But you know what? Homosexuality may be unnatural TO YOU, but heterosexuality is unnatural TO ME. You don't get to deny rights to people just because you don't like them. That is why we have a Constituion. We are not a theocracy. We are a republic. One where we are all entitled to be treated equally. One where our courts have already ruled that marriage is a fundamental right.

So no, I didn't miss it. I am certain my stomach will be in knots until June. When I hope that the Court will do the right thing. And even if they don't extend marriage equality to all 50 states, I pray they will extend the federal protections of marriage to all who are legally married. Like us.

Because that is the true defense of marriage.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Hiiumaa America Days

So I thought I would tell you a bit more about our visit to Hiiumaa for America Days.

The event lasted from Monday, March 25, until Thursday, March 29.

We sent several teams to the island, each team staying one night.

Our first team arrived on Monday, which was also the 64th anniversary of the mass deportation of Estonians during Soviet times. Over the course of four days, as many as 20,000 Estonians were deported to Siberia or Central Asia. As many as half died. Millions were deported all total between 1941 and 1949, and you would be hard pressed to find an Estonian who didn't have a personal connection to someone who was deported. As a descendant of someone who died on the trail of tears, I think I get this in a way many Americans don't.

On Hiiumaa, in the town of Kardla, there is a new memorial for those who were deported, and our team, comprised of our RSO, a local staff member from my section, and an officer from Riga who our embassy there kindly allowed to come help me out for this event (because my APAO is out for a while) participated in the candle lighting there. They also spoke to schools and screened the film, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.

I headed out on Tuesday with my team and the Ambassador. The ferry ride to the island takes an hour and a half to go just 22 km, the slowness owing to the shallowness of the water. That shallowness was compounded by the ice (the whole area is frozen) and winds blowing from the mainland. Lots of the ferries were canceled, especially the bigger ones, so we were lucky to make to the island at all!

We stopped first for lunch with the mayor of Kardla at a restaurant on the beach, then we headed to the marina the town is having built. The mayor hopes to eventually have a 10-story spa built adjacent to the marina. The town could definitely use more hotels (though the one we stayed in, the Padu Hotel, was very cute and quaint).

Our next stop was town hall, where the Kardla Uhisgumnasium performed for us while the Ambassador opened up the Picturing America exhibit. This is a great poster show that we have definitely made maximum use of. We have had it displayed throughout the country, and as the exhibit is now being retired, we have been instructed to find a place to donate it. But we have definitely gotten our money's worth out of it!

For America Days, we sponsored a dance performance on the island by one of our Fulbrighters and some of her students. One of the pieces she used in the work was written by someone who just happened to be in the audience! Everyone seemed genuinely touched. And while we were there, the Ambassador met an American citizen who was born on the island, escaped during Soviet times first to Sweden and then to the U.S., and has now returned to Hiiumaa.

After the dance, we went to see a ship building facility...the program there is part history, part job training. Unemployed work there to built a replica of a firewood ship, the likes of which used to carry firewood to the mainland for sale. Then on to dinner at Lest ja Lammas, one of the top ten restaurants in Estonia. The food was excellent and the attached hotel was super nice.

Throughout the day, the Ambassador kept careful notes for a "Day in the Life" article he was writing for Postimees. It should run in this weekend's supplement. That, combined with articles about the trip before and after in Hiiu Leht and television coverage of the opening ceremony left me pleased with the media attention we drew to the events.

On Wednesday, the Ambassador stopped by the Hiiumaa hospital, the smallest in Estonia. The hospital had been in terrible disrepair, but a grant from the our Office of Defense Cooperation enabled them not only to renovate their surgical ward, but to secure financing for renovating the rest of the hospital as well. The place looks great, and I would be perfectly comfortable being reated there.

Next the Ambassador spoke to students at Lauka School, and they served us a wonderful organic lunch. They started a program of providing only local foods for the students, and the result was healthy and tasty! Of course, it was so good and the conversation with school officials so great that the Ambassador had to dash off quickly to make his ferry.

Fortunately for me, I was taking a later ferry, so we got to visit the music school and meet up with our next team before heading out. Then we went to the museum for the textile factory that had been in Kardla (run by the Unger-Stenberg family that I told you I might be related to). I was able to buy a clock from the museum gift store like one in our DCM's office. It is shaped like the island and I have been coveting it for a year.

The seal below is also at the museum, though has nothing to do with the factory as far as I can tell. I just liked it.

Plus I got to take some pictures of old churches. Some of you know that is my thing. And I got to take pictures of the Unger-Stenberg house...some of you also know that genealogy is my even bigger thing.

The final team was going to do some more school talks before they headed back to Tallinn yesterday. In all, I think the event was extremely successful. We got to meet lots of new people and share America with some of the 8,500 people who live there. In fact, the Ambassador asked the kids at Lauka School if they had ever met an American. None had.

Now they know several.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

My Estonian Connection

Or possible Estonian connection anyway.

This past week, we have been holding "America Days" on the island of Hiiumaa. This is the third time we have done an "America Days" since I came to Estonia. We had them in Pärnu and Narva as well. They also had the first one in Tartu before I arrived.

"America Days" are basically events we plan with city or county officials to introduce America to local communities. Over the course of usually several days, we have events, contests, movie screenings, school visits and more. They have so far been very popular, and additional communites have approached us wanting to do their own "America Days."

Plus, they are just a lot of fun. We get a chance to get out of the office and really spend time with interesting people all over the country. They leave me exhausted and energized all at once!

Anyway, sometime about a week or two ago, one of my staff, knowing my hobby of photographing old churches in Estonia, sent me a website about churches on Hiiumaa.

As I was reading through the website, I noticed that one of the churches, Paluküla church, was built by the sons of the Count of Unger. Another, the Lutheran Church of Jesus in Reigi, was also built by the Unger-Stenberg family. Apparently the Ungers/Ungurns/Unger-Stenbergs (the spelling varies) were a prominent/notorious family of Baltic Germans who lived in Estonia for centuries.

Why does this matter?

Well, I am a genealogy nut. I have been working on my genealogy since my great uncle taught me to research in archives when I was 10.

I know A LOT about my family history. So when I saw the name Unger, I got excited. Because I am descended from a Jacob Unger who was born somewhere in Europe in 1788 (some record say maybe Germany, others maybe Prussia...the name suggests some sort of tie ultimately to Hungary, which would be interesting). He immigrated to South Carolina, where he lived in a German community outside of Columbia known as the Dutch (Deutsch) Fork (folk). Unlike many of my lines, I was unable to trace his line back into Europe. I had decided that I was going to have to live with it being a dead end.

But it might not be.

This is the first time I have found the name in maybe I have a tie to Estonia. Which would be cool, because in case you hadn't noticed, I really like Estonia.

So I will keep digging, but for now, I am just going to claim this as the ruins of my ancestral home.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Hillary Clinton Supports Marriage Equality

"LGBT Americans are our colleagues, our teachers, our soldiers, our friends, our loved ones. And they are full and equal citizens and deserve the rights of citizenship. That includes marriage. That's why I support marriage for lesbian and gay couples. I support it personally and as a matter of policy and law."
- Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton   

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Penny Wise?

It isn't surprising.

Disappointing, yes. Infuriating, definitely. Morale killing, absolutely.

But not surprising.

Congress has once again decided to save some budget dollars on the backs of federal employees, extending our pay freeze for a third year.

According to a piece today in the Washington Post saying that a third year of the pay freeze is all but certain, Rep. Paul Ryan, ignoring the pay freeze and furlough days, said, “Immune from the effects of the recession, federal employees have received regular salary bumps regardless of productivity or economic realities.”

But of course, we know that isn't true. The furloughs alone could cost federal employees as much as 20 percent of their pay. Did you plan your budget based on making 20 percent less than you do? Of course not. And neither did we. And our problem is doubled, since my wife and I are both federal employees.

Add to that a third year of pay freezes which is now eating away at what we will be able to live on in retirement. Because of course, our retirement pay is based on our income at retirement...income that is substantially reduced by pay freezes.

So we are not immune.

No, the only federal employees immune to the effects of the recession are members of Congress. They are the ones with no threat of furlough, no threat of salary freezes, and no threat of losing pay or benefits should the government shutdown. In fact, they are the ones who continue to receive their annual pay raises.

Also not suffering, their staffs. Who continue to get bonuses because "they work really hard" and they "work really long hours." Well so do I and so do most of the folks I have served with. For many of us, me included, a 40 hour week would be a luxury. It would be like vacation. Sixty to 80 hours is more the norm.

And of course, these are the same folks who have been quoted as saying such things as that they couldn't take a pay cut because their families depend on the $174,000 per year to survive. But I guess ours don't depend on our substantially lower than $174,000 salary.

But you have probably heard how we federal employees make so much more than the private sector. And this is true for our blue collar colleagues. They do make more than their private sector colleagues.

Not so for white collar federal employees. We, on average, make about 24 percent LESS than we would in the private sector. This is a price we willing pay for the privilege of serving the country and for the benefit of job security.

But let me tell you, it is hard to feel privileged to serve those who openly despise you. And it is hard to feel secure when they are freezing your pay and cutting your salary.

I love my job. I love the work I do and I believe in it. I think what I do matters. And I love where I live. I love serving.

But I would be lying to you if I didn't find myself thinking about how much easier life would be in I took all the experience, all the languages, and all the training that I have gained in my nine years in the Foreign Service, and went to work in Public Affairs or media relations for some big company at some substantially larger salary. And I would have the added bonus of getting to be closer to my family, and to get to see my dad and inlaws more often, to get to watch our nieces and nephews grow up.

And all that experience I would be taking with me? That was paid for by the taxpayers, so they would have to pay to replace me. They would have to bear all those costs all over again. And I guarantee that is a lot more than what they are saving by freezing my salary.

Which is certainly pound foolish.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Searching For A Story

One cool thing about the Foreign Service is all the unique things you end up with from around the world. I wrote about this some time back in a post called Decorating with Stories.

Well today I got something I know nothing about from a place I have never been.

A friend here at the embassy inherited this cool tapestry from his mother. He didn't particularly want it, but her instructions in the will were pretty clear.

He can't sell it.
He can't give it to a stranger.
If he gives it away, it must be to someone who promises not to sell it.

So he offered it to me, and I happily accepted it even though I know nothing about it other than what he told me, which is that it is probably from Burma and based on how long his mother owned it and when she likely purchased it, it is at least 50 and likely more than 80 years old. I did find on the internet that these are called Kalagas.

So I thought I would show it to you here. Because maybe you know something.

Because I would like to know this tapestry's story.

Taken with my iphone, so pardon the quality

This is on the back and may be a signature of some sort

Monday, March 04, 2013

Late Arrivals

I could have sworn I blogged (bitched) about this last year, but I can't find the post. I know I talked about it on Facebook. But you are not all friends on Facebook, because this blog is anonymous (cough cough).

Last year, around February, a bunch of our mail was sent to Moscow. And the contractor who accidentally took it there, LEFT IT THERE.

And then it was lost. No one could find it anywhere.

And the post office responded that we should consider ourselves lucky to get mail at all.

Thank you for your service, right?

So anyway, some of it finally arrived. Today. ONE YEAR later.

On the bright side, our mail guy is awesome and awesomely hysterical. So I just had to share the email we got about it:

Subject: Mail Update - From Russia with Love, Epilogue

To All,

Regarding my earlier email regarding the missing mail from last spring, about 2/3 of it has now been sorted and is waiting in your mailboxes in the DPO. All in all, about five cubic feet of flat mail and small packages destined for Embassy Tallinn were returned to the USPS from Russia.

The receipt of some of these items may be bittersweet and the timing of their return is perfect for creating misunderstandings. As most of this mail went missing in March of 2012, please scrutinize your mail closely and check the mailing dates.

As you look through your mail over the next few days, here are a few things to keep in mind:

•  That thoughtful birthday card may have been for your LAST birthday
•  You’ve already seen that NetFlix movie
•  The great 2 for 1 sale at Pottery Barn has long since ended
•  This new credit card is the one you replaced already
•  Your “new” TSP pin probably isn’t
•  That rebate check is expired
•  The Special Double Oscar Edition of People Magazine is from the previous year, no one cared about J. Lo’s dress this year.

And finally as for that “final notice” and those “urgent: medical test results,” well… I hope they all worked out... least the movies were good and the card was a nice thought...

Friday, March 01, 2013

Happy Friday!

This has nothing to do with anything except that it made me smile.