Searching for the GOOD in Goodbye

The last two weeks have been interesting, to say the least. (That sentence is a strong competitor for “understatement of the year 2019.”) I almost typed that I’ve started this post multiple times in the last fourteen days, but that isn’t actually true. I’ve thought about starting this post, but have never gotten beyond pondering it in the shower that has endless hot water, or on my newly re-instituted walks past the White House on my way to work, or as I wander the aisles of CVS, fully aware that they are more groceries available in a single corner drug store in downtown Washington D.C. than there were in the supermarkets I frequented in Caracas.

So yes, the last two weeks have been full of changes- normally something that gets top billing at In Search of the End of the Sidewalk. And yet, my faithful readers (all 7.5 of you!) have heard nary a peep out of me- even the book reviews have been sporadic and off-schedule. Why? Because processing takes time. Because heartache is hard to put onto paper (or a screen). And because there is no way to explain what it feels like to be given 72 hours to pack up your life and to say goodbye to friends and colleagues and not be sure if you will ever see them again.

For me, that meant working a really long day, being so busy I didn’t even realize I hadn’t taken a trip to the little diplomats’ room in over ten hours- thank you middle school teacher bladder! I was holding it together well as long as I was fielding questions, sorting plans, and thinking about what needed to be done to get everyone on those planes. That all fell apart for me at about 4:50PM. I looked down at the clock on my computer and realized that the goodbye was coming soon- very soon. Updating spreadsheets made blurry by watering eyes, I staved off the inevitable for as long as possible. But denial can only last so long. Five o’clock is usually a great time of day, but not that Thursday afternoon. When Gerard, my CLO administrative assistant got up to go, I fell apart. I’m not sure we even actually said goodbye. A long and tight hug, followed by a second hug said it all for us. Tears flowed. He hid his behind sunglasses and I did the awkward hand-flap thing, neither of us able to pretend this was anything less than goodbye.

All of these things take a toll and while writing is therapeutic, blank space is as well. (I was going to make a clever Taylor Swift reference here, as I do enjoy some terrible pop music in my life, but then I realized that the chorus lyrics of “So it’s gonna be forever/Or it’s gonna go down in flames/You can tell me when it’s over/If the high was worth the pain” are really more fitting with the political side of Venezuela, a topic I’m going to steer away from as much as possible in this forum. I’m not going to talk about what may or may not be forever in Venezuela, what may or may not go down in flames in Caracas and whether or not it is worth the pain. I’ll have that conversation all day long in person, but not here. Not now. So, Taylor, my dear, no cheeky 1989 album references for me tonight.)

With a fortnight plus-plus behind me and most of the craziness starting to get under control, it seems like now is a good time to talk about our ordered departure. But how do I do that without getting into the politics? That’s a tough line to walk, but the best answer is to do it through an equally powerful “p” word- people.

People are what made it hard to leave Caracas and people are what made leaving possible.

The folks on the ground in Venezuela were amazing. Our GSO team (these are the officers and local staff who deal with our housing, our cars, our travel, etc.) was more prepared that I could have imagined with seats booked on American Airlines for the entire crew of departing personnel and families in a matter of hours. At the same time, they negotiated with American Airlines to allow us all extra bags (AA said three per person, but when we got to the airport, there was no counting or weighing- if you brought it to the counter, it got tagged and put on the plane- amazing customer service!) and to make sure the airline was prepared for the large number of pets that would be evacuating with the community. The actual arrangements to get everyone out of Venezuela in a safe and secure and expeditious manner was a massive amount of work and the GSO team at post was professional, but also deeply caring as they helped sort a variety of individual arrangements.

While GSO was on the phone with the airlines, the HR shop was cutting orders, not just to DC, but a variety of safe-haven locations both inside and outside the United States. This is a daunting task, one that requires hours of manpower and yet I never saw the team waiver- staying as late as necessary to make sure that people were ready to fly in a matter of hours.

And I can’t say enough fantastic things about our security team either. Quiet leadership and professionalism were the names of the game for the office on that Thursday of controlled chaos. While some of them had their own families to help prepare for the evacuation, they continued to make arrangements for our secure departure from the country we collectively called home. As they were in and out of my office that last morning and afternoon, it was a constant discussion about how to lessen the trauma of the next few days. One of the most amazing things that came out of the departure from Caracas was the help that our team in Caracas was able to secure with their colleagues in Miami. When we reached Miami with the first set of evacuees ( ½ came out on Friday and the other ½ on Saturday) we were met at the doors of the plane by a couple of field agents who told us to gather at the top of the ramp with the other agents. When we had the entire embassy crew together, these men carried babies, pushed strollers, opened passport control lines for our officers and diplomatic families, pushed us through security screening, and provided escorts to our onward gates. Amazing isn’t strong enough of a word for this group of agents. Astonishing. Astounding. Remarkable. All of these are fair adjectives. It wasn’t that we couldn’t have gone through passport control like we normally do. We definitely could have helped one another with babies and strollers and luggage. We could have stood in line to redo security checks and we definitely could have wandered the airport to find our gates. We had time. But, to have someone standing there, welcoming us home with smiles was special. We were emotionally spent. The goodbyes that morning in Caracas were tough- they were heartbreaking and many of us felt as if we were abandoning our coworkers and employees in a time of crisis. To have someone, just for a few minutes, take over and say “we’ve got you” meant the world. They were strangers to us, but we are all part of a bigger USG team looking out for the best interests of this nation. We didn’t need to know them beyond that for them to take us under their wings and provide much needed support. We are one team. And they had our backs in a really special way.

To top it off, when we arrived in Washington DC at the end of a day that felt endless, we were greeted once again by smiling faces. The previous CLO and a few former-Caracas State Department workers were in the terminal with signs and smiles and cheers and hugs and a few tears as well. (Also, not to be discounted, they had water and homemade cookies!) The people who were there were part of the crew that went on ordered departure back in 2017, so they got it in a way no one else could. They knew what our last 48 hours had been like- no need to rehash it or explain why tears and smiles went hand in hand.

This whole thing started with politics- politics that I feel deeply connected to and have strong personal opinions about. But in my two weeks of processing, I realize it is the people who have stepped up to make a difficult situation a bit easier, a bit smoother, a bit more humane. I can’t begin to compare my hardships with those of the average Venezuelan, but difficult times aren’t about comparing one set of pain with another- they are about being resilient in your own place at your own time and it has been the people around me who have helped to create a soft landing after what felt a bit like jumping without a parachute. It is those people who made me feel like I am ready to hop back on that plane and jump again. And again. And again, if necessary.

Living in Caracas was not always easy and at times it was frustrating beyond belief, but these people (and many others) make me want to be on the next flight back there. They make me want to be back at work alongside strong and compassionate colleagues and friends. And they make me believe that the political fight for democracy is worth all of this and more.

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U.S. Embassy Caracas (photo credit: P. Branco)

 

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan

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For the longest time, all through high school and college, I shied away from non-fiction books that weren’t on my required reading lists. My image of non-fiction was one of drily written tales that read like epic encyclopedia entries; just the facts, ma’am. But, about seven years ago I stumbled upon Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, turning my notion of non-fiction writing on its head. (Stumbled upon isn’t entirely accurate. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in western China, starving from a lack of reading material and was handed this book. Whereas a year before I would have turned my nose up at it, literary deprivation had taken hold and I devoured the paperback, cover to cover, in just two days.) Since my introduction into the new world of non-fiction, I’ve read everything from real-life accounts of floods in Pennsylvania (The Johnstown Flood  by David McCullough) to adventures in the far reaches of the Amazon (The Unconquered by Scott Wallace), not to mention a bevy of memoirs.

My most recent foray into the world of non-fiction was The Big Burn by Timothy Egan, a tale of the birth of our national park system and the fire that nearly destroyed it. As a frequenter of the American national parks, the book drew me in with the history of how these lands were set aside and preserved for future generations, which was no easy task as industry leaders would rather turn a profit off the wood and minerals available, building a dynasty for their family, rather than create a lasting legacy for the entire nation. Egan does a great job giving the background of this fight, leaving the reader feeling like they “knew” Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.

With a strong back story set, Egan then pushes the reader through the harrowing forty-eight hours that were “the big burn.” Connections between the reader and the characters, as well as the reader and the land, create a sense of panic and fear as the fire ravages the mountain ridges of the northwestern forests. I could feel the flames licking my hands as I turned the pages; I could feel the heat of the fire as it rushed over fireman huddled in creeks under wet blankets and hunkered down in ravines and caves; I could feel the air rush out of the room as the fire stole away the oxygen, leaving noxious poison in its stead; and I could feel the fear of men who were moments away from their painful deaths.

In the last decade, non-fiction has become highly readable. No longer does one feel like they need to be a subject matter in the topic at hand before picking up a history-based book. Egan continues to add to this recreated genre- writing a book about the birth of our nation’s beloved parks that is ideal for anyone who has ever set foot in the wilderness of the northwest. While the disastrous mixture of the greed of the eastern seaboard barons and the big burn nearly destroyed the burgeoning forest service and all Pinchot and Roosevelt worked for, the author is able to spin the tale in such a way to create hope on the part of the reader, ending with a sense of better days, rather than the one of despair that could so easily take its place. Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn earns:

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Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield

Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield

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World War II gets a lot of attention in high school history books and on TV documentaries, but oftentimes while the sacrifices of American soldiers are the center point of these discussions, a darker tale is swept under the rug- that of internment camps on our own soil, built to hold our own citizens. The Japanese camps of the early 1940s are too often skimmed over in the discussion of the US’ role in the war, not giving fair play time to those who suffered and lost while never leaving their home country. Sophie Littlefield’s latest book, Garden of Stones, shines a light on this difficult time in American history, weaving a tale that links the pain of several generations.

As Garden of Stones jumps between the Patty’s pending wedding in the late 1970s and the dissolution of that same family in the early 1940s, Littlefield tells Lucy’s story- the middle woman in a three-generation tale. Lucy was just a teenager when the US government decided it would be prudent to gather up all Americans of Japanese ancestry and send them to holding camps, fearful that these people would work with the Japanese military against the US. Lucy was still reeling from the sudden loss of her father when she and her mother were shipped to Mazanar in California. While Lucy found the transition easier than her mother, falling into a part-time job as a delivery girl and meeting Jessie, who would be her first true love, her mother, Miyako, finds no such solace. As a beautiful woman, she is instantly noticed by the officers who ran the camp and soon forced to provide favors for these men, in hopes of keeping her maturing, and beautiful, daughter away from their prying eyes and filthy hands.

Soon though, Patty sees the darker side of the camp, as she realizes that not only her mother, but also Jessie, are taken advantage of in ways that would be unheard of in her life before the war came to American soil. This sudden loss of naivety starts the ball rolling on a series of events that will transform not only her own life, but those of her mother and Jessie as well.

Garden of Stones doesn’t condone the choices and subsequent actions of its various struggling characters, but it does shine a light on their backgrounds, allowing the reader to see beyond the face value of what appears to be heartless maiming of a child or cold-blooded murder. There is more to each character than meets the eye and as readers, we are privy to those histories and stories.

My one complaint with this book is that the multi-generational ensemble cast creates such a huge tale to tell that individual’s stories often don’t go as deep as I would like. There were several characters introduced, who by the end of the novel, I still want to know more about. Stories that need to be told are left open-ended, in what seem to be unintentional cliffhangers.

Sophie Littlefield’s latest work isn’t always easy to read, on an emotional level, but it does tell the tale of a time too often forgotten, and does so in a way that made me really consider just how large a swath of gray area can exist when it comes to the choices people make, earning it:

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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie


If it is drama you crave, Russian history is probably one of the best non-fiction outlets for your desire.  It is filled with love and betrayal, possible marriages and definite assassinations, and intrigue beyond what Hollywood can manufacture. Catherin the Great: Portrait of a Woman covers all of these possibilities, as well as a glance at ancient frenemies, haters, posers and every other modern label for the spectacle-loving folks!

Catherine, originally Sophia, born in 1729, had ties to European nobility through her mother, but it took a summons from Russia for her to ascend to the rank of empress. But such a monumental climb would take years, as well as royal amounts of patience on her part. After her betrothal and eventual wedding to the decidedly undesirable (both in physical and emotional contexts) Peter III, Catherine is forced to bend to the will of her over-bearing mother-in-law and her immature new husband.

After the death of Empress Elizabeth, it quickly becomes apparent that Peter is not fit for the throne. He doesn’t have the intelligence, the interest or stamina one would need to rule a country as large and diverse as Russia in the mid 1700’s. With his true love remaining in his native Europe, Peter aligns himself with countries out of nostalgia rather than through a determination of what is strategically the best for his adopted country. When this mindset of ruling starts to show cracks, it doesn’t take long for the strong-willed Catherine to step in, take control of the court and crown herself Empress Catherine II.

Catherine the Great follows the empire-leader from the time she was a young girl, a mere teenager, called away from her family by the Empress Elizabeth to be the wife of the empress’ nephew and future successor, Peter III, to the stroke that eventually took her life. Throughout these decades, readers are treated to not only Catherine the Great’s political dealings, but her personal triumphs and failures as well.

Massie’s book has an extraordinary amount of detail in it, which is both its top asset, as well as one of the biggest detractions. While I was fascinated with where Catherine (then Sophia) came from and her rise to power and fame, at times the digressions into history, philosophy and personal dalliances became a distraction to her tale. While there is no way to whittle the life of a royal down to a few hundred pages, I feel as though Massie could have edited some of the divergences, which at times rambled down paths that, while illuminating specific points of Russian history, were not necessary for the reader to understand Catherine’ s trek to the throne.

With much of my Russian history being the much more current studies in most curricula today, including the time of USSR and the Cold War, Catherine the Great was a fascinating tale of one woman’s triumph over a deadbeat husband and her rise to the ultimate seat of authority. Robert K. Massie has crafted a biography that reads as smoothly as a work of fiction, drawing the reader in to the tale of the ancient Russian royalty’s inner lives and political leanings. While I believe a bit of editing would have created a more finely tuned tale, Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is a solid biography of a bold woman, earning it: