Death by PowerPoint

1987 saw such spectacular events as President Reagan undergoing prostate surgery, the debut of both Prozac and The Simpsons and the birth of Lil’ Bow-Wow. (Now grown up, he has dropped the diminutive from his name and prefers a more mature, more cultured moniker- Bow-Wow.) As remarkable as these things may be, that fateful year, twenty-five years ago, brought with it something much more life-altering than just the voice that would bring us classics like “Bounce with Me” and “Puppy Love.” (These are either semi-famous rap songs or jingles that belong on the type of CD that soccer moms play on an endless loop in their mini-vans as they shuttle their over-scheduled darlings from one enriching after-school activity to another. While Wikipedia tells me they fall into the first category, I find their titles to be deceptively aimed at young children. I think this may be the right direction for Glee to head in for their next “mash-up” episode.)

1987 brought us a new kind of slow, painful demise- Death by PowerPoint.

Before the late 80’s, office workers sitting at their desks, whiling away the hours until they could punch out  on the company clock and hop in their Pontiac Bonnevilles, could imagine their grisly ends coming through a variety of means. Maybe an assistant paper-pusher miscalculates the space needed when preparing packets for his boss’ meeting and ends up with a rusty staple embedded in his thumb, which without the proper tetanus shots, leads to lockjaw and eventual starvation. Maybe the secretary daydreams while filing endless manila folders in the gray metal cabinet that sits behind her desk and while her focus is elsewhere, she gets a doozy of a paper cut, which over time becomes infected and she dies, ranting like a crazy woman, from a high fever. Or maybe, just maybe, the bacteria built up on the office kitchen plates that everyone uses and rinses quickly, but never really washes well, end the middle management dreams of a bean counter or two.

All of these are plausible, yet uncommon, ways to perish at the office. Since 1987 though, PowerPoint has brought us a much more sinister possibility. Endless slides, often accompanied by a mercenary who reads each and every bullet point, have become a standard way for companies to cull their herds.

With a move to China on the horizon, and a lackluster desire to continue to study such an overwhelming language, I have finally been able to make the move to Con-Gen.  This is a general course given to all diplomats headed out on tours where they will deal with passports and visas.  It goes over policy and law and the realities of the implementation of those edicts. While the information is actually quite interesting, the presentation leaves something to be desired.

Friday, just my second day of the course, I sat through four and half hours of lecture.  In that amount of time, we covered 123 slides.  Now, I was an English teacher and math has never been my strong suit (I got a C in math in the 6th grade, which earned me a grounding and extra math homework every night until the next set of midterms were sent home), but I didn’t even have to bust out my computer’s calculator to determine we were running at about a slide every two minutes. Granted, some slides had cute clipart on them, which definitely helped me make connections between the legalese of government documents and what a rabbit at a visa window would look like, so I can’t complain too much.

PowerPoint is a wonderful application and has been refined significantly since its days of being called “Presenter,” but there are a few rules that all PowerPoint architects should keep in mind:

*Keep fonts and colors to a minimum (No one loves pretty and fluffy and fabulous more than I do, but if the font is so curly that I can’t decide whether or not I somehow ended up back in Chinese class, you should probably pass on it.)

*Avoid animation of most any kind (The gunshot-like lettering was always a favorite of my 8th graders.  Not only is it totally obnoxious to listen to each individual letter shoot its way on to the screen, but there is no way to comprehensibly  talk over it, so the entire audience is inflicted with a mild case of PTSD before you even begin to speak about each and every slide.)

*Keep your bullet points to a minimum (as demonstrated here, three is sufficient) and unless you are presenting to a group of inept third graders (which raises a whole different series of possible issues) there is no need to read the slides. Summarize, summarize, summarize!!

The 80’s were a glorious time. I distinctly remember being the proud owner of a bangin’ neon windbreaker, having an unfulfilled longing for Garbage Pail Kids trading cards (which were deemed a waste of money and “junk” by the keepers of the allowance) and tuning in weekly to watch Alf’s appetite for cats remain on an unwilling crash diet.  American culture is bigger (although not necessarily better) for that bedazzled era, but little from the penultimate decade of the century has endured and spread so pervasively as the PowerPoint program and the invisible scars many of us carry from a quarter century of painful presentations.


A Year of Transition

With just a few hours remaining in 2011, there is no time like right now to pause and reflect on what has happened over the last 365 days. There is only one word to sum up this last year for us- CHANGE.

2011 was a year of transitions for Thad and me. It started with Thad being on the register for a job with the State Department, but also with him still facing the final hurdle- passing a speaker phone-proctored Chinese test. (I can’t understand English over speaker phone half the time, let alone trying to decipher a second language that way!) Only a few close friends and family members knew that he was in the midst of this process, so as the year started, we harbored secret hopes of major changes in our lives. After many hours of practice and preparation, he successfully completed the phone test and bumped to the very top of the register. Within weeks he received a job offer and we broke the news to our bosses, colleagues and others who we had kept outside the loop and began plans to move to Washington DC.

2011 saw me quit (for a second time) the job I loved! After nine years of teaching 8th grade English and reading in the same classroom at Marsing Middle School, I left my job to move east with Thad as he embarked on a new career path. Nine years in one classroom is much like moving out of a home you’ve lived in for a decade. I had hundreds and hundreds of young adult books to sort through, all sorts of posters and wall hangings to divvy out to my fellow teachers, binder upon binder of teaching materials to sort and decide which would stay and which would go with me and several closets full of random personal items that needed to be packed up and hauled home. The sorting was the easy part of the process.  The goodbyes were not. I thought I was going to keep it all together, but that resolve lasted about three whole minutes. Saying goodbye to my wonderful colleagues who had become more than just coworkers, who had become my friends, was not an easy task. I had my dream job, worked for an outstanding principal and loved nearly every minute of what I did.  It was definitely not easy to turn in my keys and walk out of my building one last time.

2011 was a year of downsizing. We moved from our beautiful home in south Nampa (which is for sale, if anyone is interested!) to a 600 square foot apartment in Arlington, Virginia. While clothes went with us to the new place, the rest of our belongings are in temporary and long-term storage, awaiting the next phases of the diplomatic lifestyle we’ve undertaken. We sold both of our cars and are now beholden to public transportation for all of our conveyance needs. My endless bookshelves of books mostly went to charity, and I get my reading fix from the much smaller, much more portable Nook e-reader.

2011 saw Thad get his first diplomatic posting- Chengdu, China.  We couldn’t have been more thrilled, as that was our number one choice off of the bid list. It has also seen him spend countless hours in Chinese class and even more hours at home studying in preparation for the upcoming move.

2011 was a year of travel for me. After the move to Virginia, I flew home for my dad’s birthday in July and then flew to New England to meet up with my parents for a road trip in the fall. We visited several US states and a few Canadian provinces while we were at it. The year rounded out with a trip to Idaho for the holidays.

This last year has been filled with so many changes that it is hard to keep track of them all, but they have all headed us in a positive direction.  I know that, for many people, this last year was one of hardship and frustration.  Thad and I have been very lucky that the changes that have come into our lives are ones that we initiated and wanted to take place.  We are excited to welcome this new year that is just a couple of hours away.  It is going to be another year of transformation as we finally move abroad again, as I search for a job to replace the career I am leaving behind and as we tackle a new country and lifestyle.

As 2011 fades into the background, 2012 is emerging on the horizon, filled with endless possibilities and opportunities. Welcome!!


Radioactive Bananas

As Thad continues, on a daily basis, to unravel the intricacies of Mandarin Chinese, occasionally making his teachers cringe with pronouncements such as “The puppy must depend on the bitch,” I have also occasionally ventured into the buildings that comprise FSI (the Foreign Service Institute). I can’t speak for generations of spouses before me, but one thing that the Foreign Service is really doing well now is making sure that the accompanying family members of the officers are well-educated.  They have an entire department set up for this purpose alone.  Through these offices, I have been able to sign-up for and attend an array of classes, including ones on what life is “really” like in the Foreign Service and one all about the details of the various allowances the government has set aside for diplomatic officers, but doesn’t necessarily hand out unless they are requested.  Good information to have in my back pocket.

My time of casually attending these classes is quickly drawing to a close though, as the last day of October is not only my least favorite holiday in the whole world, but also the start to my scheduled Chinese classes. (Seriously- I preferred getting smacked with a cow stomach blown up like a balloon during Carnival when I lived in the Dominican Republic to the abundance of costumed teenagers standing at my door looking for a candy handout and the ubiquitous “sexy” anything and everything. For women the country-over, this seems to be a holiday designed to let out any latent street-walker leanings.  As a side note- little trick-or-treaters are fabulous and cute!)

A couple of weeks and a huge list of possible classes to attend don’t mesh well, so I quickly signed up for the ones that I could squeeze into my remaining time.  Information gleaned off of building-mates in the elevator and other spouses lead me to believe that the one “must-have” class was the Security Overseas Seminar.  It is designed to be a two day course covering basic security concerns for posts worldwide.  It sounded important.  It sounded practical.  It sounded interesting.  I signed up.

It was all of those things and more.  It was terrifying.  It was paranoia-creating. It should be renamed “101 Ways to Die in the Foreign Service,” although I am not sure this would draw the same clientele that the current, mundane “Security Overseas Seminar” does.  (The course is required for all diplomats, so Thad does get the pleasure of attendance at some point this winter.)

Rather than going into great detail about all of the sessions and the possibilities for harm that await us abroad, I have compiled a short list of things I learned over my two days of attendance.

***In case of situation where decontamination is necessary, my clothes will be cut off of me by trained staff. I will then be soaped down in an effort to get all contamination off my body.  Contamination tends to cling to hair.  I will be given a sponge and told to take care of these areas myself.  If I do not do a sufficient job, I will be given a second chance.  If again this cleaning is not adequate, the staff will instruct me to take a wide stance and look at the sky (apparently this minimizes embarrassment) while they do the job for me. This is good to know.  I will make sure my first two attempts are quite thorough!

***Radiation is a daily part of life. Our TVs and microwaves give off radiation. We all travel and get doses of radiation from the airport.  People should not freak out each time FOX News goes on a 24-hour news cycle binge about cellphone radiation.  Even bananas contain radiation.  How many bananas would I need to eat to be harmed by it?  ALL of them!

***In case of an evacuation, I should always have a “Go-Bag” ready. This should be packed with basic items such as a change of clothes, some non-perishable snack items, and copies of important documents, as well as some American cash. We did not have one of these in Peace Corps and when we were told we were being evacuated post-earthquake, we had just a few minutes to grab what we would need for an indefinite stay away from our post. In that time of uncertainty, I grabbed my all-important stuffed monster, Zugly, that I have had since I was in about the second grade and somehow my Cleveland  Browns shirt, a lovely “gift” from friends at home,  made it into the backpack as well. (For those of you not aware, I HATE the Cleveland Browns.  The reasons why are long and a little complicated, but to sum it up, I can’t handle the fact that a team named the Browns uses orange as their main color and that they have a set of outfits that make them look just like a bunch of Tootsie Rolls when they don them.) If I remember correctly, Thad’s backpack carried the laptop, but also a crucial addition of Doritos that we had recently acquired from outside of town.  A pre-planned Go-Bag is probably a good thing for the Ross family!

***Many posts are extremely cold. I may not jerry-rig a brick with a heating element to create my own personal foot-warmer.  Apparently, the heat from this will be enjoyed by the fire inspection staff from Washington DC and once they are properly warmed, they will unplug it and take it away from me. (Yes, it happened.  Yes, the instructor had the brick with him.)

***When I move into my new home, if it is an apartment building, I should often take the stairs. This is not only good for my health. Knowing who lives (yes, you read that correctly!) in my stairwell and making acquaintances with these people can be to my advantage.  Good to know!

Is this an exhaustive list of what I learned at SOS this last week?  Nope, but it does give a taste of what the class is like. I now know where the best places to be in case of a possible bomb are (it naturally boils down to “as far away as possible”) and how to circumvent questions that seem to be a bit too inquisitive about embassy life (“Why did you ask me that?” apparently shuts things down pretty quickly).

With that under my belt, I’ve got just a bit of time off and then I’ll be joining Thad in his attempt to curtail the inadvertent swearing in Mandarin!