Taking the Curves as Fast as I Can

Curves. They are all over the internet right now. Dove wants women to accept their curves (and buy more lotion in the process)  and England wants to see those curves in action. (Click here to see the video.)  But curves have taken on a whole new meaning in my life over the last few weeks, as I’ve been wrangling one or two myself. But, my curves have not been of the physical nature, but rather the learning kind. Learning curves. And they’ve been steep!

Two weeks ago, I started a new job at the embassy in Kuala Lumpur. I’m now working in the consular section, covering an array of tasks- everything from answering calls from people looking for information (Will the embassy exchange my US dollars to Malaysian ringgit? No. Do you keep a list of local doctors/lawyers? Yes. Can I renounce my citizenship? You bet, for $2350!) to doing intake of passports/paperwork for visa applicants (looking through passports from Spain, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc. is fascinating!) But, all of this requires a working knowledge of consular affairs that is a bit rusty in my mind. I was lucky enough to be able to take CONGEN in 2011(the consular training course for Foreign Service officers taught by the Foreign Service Institute in Virginia), but then I ended up not using that training in Chengdu, so the details are a bit foggy, but coming back quickly.

B1/B2 visa? Let’s scan a photo and send you off for fingerprints.

Looking for a student visa? Be sure to give me your SEVIS receipt.

Slowly, the jargon of the consular world is coming back to me. (It does help that I’ve heard it from Thad every day for the last two years as well!)

Needless to say, every day has been a new adventure for the past couple of weeks and I’m quickly getting to the point where I don’t have to put each and every caller on hold to go run down an answer. I’m up to every other caller on hold!

Way back in November, when I hadn’t heard any positive news about employment, I was nominated to sit on the embassy’s employee association board. Thinking it would be a great way to get out of the house and more involved in the community, I accepted the nomination and ran for a seat on the board. On my second day back in the office, I got an email saying I had been elected. So, add that to the calendar as well.  (Just yesterday we had our first meeting and I was assigned to be in charge of “events.” It looks like I’ll be going back to my CLO roots with that one!)

The second part of the curves thrown at me by the new job is relearning to budget my time. When I wasn’t working, days had a lot of spare time in them. Time for a second breakfast. (That may have contributed to some new curves in and of itself.) Time to stop for a hot chocolate at Starbucks before going to the grocery store. Time for an afternoon catnap. Time to finish a book a day. Time to work on reading and assignments for school.

All that time has flown out the window!

I went from searching for productive ways to fill my days (and looking for ways to be out of the house when Patimah was cleaning) to having a full schedule on a daily basis. As I’m facing down end-of-term papers for twelve credits of graduate courses, I’m thinking the learning curve for scheduling is looking more like a vertical line than a gentle slope, but I there is no activity on the list I want to give up, so I’ll just keep plugging away: work, school, events and then around the corner to do it all again!

The Birthing of a Bid List

Department of State bidding (at least at the entry-level) is much like naming a baby. Yes, I know this may seem like a far-fetched simile, but it is pretty darn accurate. Being an obsessive planner, I always figured if I had a kid, I would scour the baby name books and have a short list of options picked out before the freedom ending trip to the hospital (I mean, birth),  but it would be shared with no one beyond Thad.  It is just too easy for names to be picked apart:

-“Not Donatello! I knew a Donatello and he was an obnoxious stinkbug, living in the sewers and eating pizza all day!”

-“Medusa? Are you serious? You’re tempting the follicle fates with a name like that!”

-“Pumpernickel?!” She’ll be called Bread-Head by the mean kids at school!”

You see, even the most well-meaning friends and family feel the need to weigh in on the moniker of the yet-to-take-a-breath child, passing judgment (always negative, for some reason!) upon the name by which they will be known for their entire lives. So, rather than have to hear all the worst possible mutations of any selected name, I think I’ll just lock the options away in the vault, only making the announcement once the name is officially inked on the birth certificate, making it the chosen name, for better or worse.

Bidding is exactly the same! Rather than perusing book after book of baby names and meanings, we downloaded a giant list of over 250 possible posts, sorting them into a shorter and shorter list of possibilities.  But, just like a baby name, that short list was kept top secret, as everyone has an opinion to share (or at least an eyebrow to raise) about whatever tops the list:

-“Cuba? But internet costs $500 a month!”

-“London!?” Are you sure? I hear the morale at that post is terrible!”

-“Really? Calgary? But Canada is just America’s hat and you’re not really a hat-girl.”

Again, you see, even the most well-meaning people are overwhelmed with the need to share what they “know” about the posts ranked high on your bid list. (The problem with what people “know,” is it is often from the friend of a cousin of an officer who served at that post twenty years ago; or even better, it comes from a Personal Post Insight survey that was obviously filled out by the most bitter, jaded officer  on her worst day in the country, where if a hug from a koala bear were paired with a bookstore shopping spree, the post would still earn a negative rating; or, sadly, maybe just a bored, unhappy EFM who doesn’t want to be a part of his community. Any way you cut it, the “known” advice is often not the best advice.)

The LIST came out a few weeks ago, was narrowed down and submitted for an initial review by Thad’s CDO (career development officer) in Washington DC. She came back with some suggestions; the list was reworked and resubmitted for final consideration a week later. (That makes it sound like the list was only revised a single time. Sooo untrue! We went over that list time after time, as dark horses like Ljubljana took the lead and initial frontrunners like London dropped into the teen spots.)

In the end, our list (okay, Thad’s, but I consider it mine too, since I also have to live with the assigned results) went to DC and then we waited. One day…two days…three days…eleven days!  In reality, eleven days is a pretty quick turnaround when it comes to an assignment, but it seemed more like nine months of gestation while we waited, checked the email and waited some more.

But, the bundle of joy has arrived! A bouncing baby boy? A giggly little girl? Nope! Rather, a balmy two years in KUALA LUMPUR, starting summer 2014!

And, much like with a newly named baby, I’ve been privy to all sorts of opinions and ideas on our new post, but they’ve all been positive. “Bethesda is such a cute name!” and “Oh, Reginald fits him perfectly!” are translated to “What a great place for travel!” and “You’ll love the embassy there!”

With some serious secretive list-making skills being fully honed, we are ready for the next round of high level information security. No, not baby naming (don’t get your hopes up on that one!), but winter R&R planning!

 

A few pictures from last time we were in KL, on vacation with friends.

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Goodbye Bonbons, Hello PB&J

After a year of self-imposed temporary retirement, my days of lounging on the couch and eating Bonbons are coming to an end.  (Okay, there were no Bonbons consumed over the course of the last twelve months, but there was a lot of reading, writing and random wandering in the DC metro area, as well as a few less thrilling days filled with boredom and doubt. Luckily, the down days were few and more nostalgic than depressing.) Soon, as in Monday, it is time for me to rejoin the full-time workforce that powers our great nation. Granted, I am joining that forty-hour-a-week club on a different continent, but it is in the service of the Homeland, so I can soon commiserate with everyone else looking forward to weekend each Monday morning.

While my re-entry isn’t into the world of education (a topic about which I am having very mixed emotions), it is in a capacity that will allow me to be deeply involved in our new community and hopefully create some of the same connections with people that I was able to do teaching. I will be the CLO (community liaison officer) for the Chengdu Consulate. This means that I will work to help officers and families make the transition to their new home, work to create a great morale at the post, provide information about schools in the area, as well as event planning and (heaven forbid it is needed) crisis management on behalf of the families.

My brain (and notebook) have been in overdrive the last few weeks as I have been trying to glean as much information as possible from the outgoing CLO. She is a treasure-trove of knowledge about everything in this city. She can point an officer or family member in the right direction for anything from simple tailoring needs to wherein town to go to get an entire costume created. She can tell someone where to go to get a picture framed and then turn around and office advice to someone else on the best place to find a turkey for a special dinner. The woman is a walking Rolodex for Chengdu! Needless to say, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of having to create all of those connections myself, but luckily she has been kind enough to introduce me to many of her contacts and to take me on a variety of field trips to various sections of town.  She is leaving behind some rather large shoes to fill, but with my predilection for footwear, I am hoping I’ve got something in the closet that will sparkle and shine!

Monday morning, the year-long vacation comes screeching to halt. It might be a little painful when Thad’s alarm goes off and I actually have to roll out of bed, rather than give him a slight nudge to get him moving and then sprawl diagonally across the vastness of an entire bed to myself. And, in a few weeks I may be seeing the grass as greener on the unemployed side of the fence, but for now, I am excited to rejoin the workforce, to pack my peanut butter sandwich each morning and to actually contribute a few dead presidents to our bank account each month.

What exactly have I done with my year off? I have been…

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Survey Says…

Eleven months ago, as I was finishing up my teaching job at Marsing Middle School, Thad and I were in the midst of a career change that started with a cross-country move. Thank goodness those last days were teacher work days and that I had a personal leave day or two left! I had students load all of my books, files, posters, sweaters, and knick-knacks into a friend’s mother’s car, as mine had already been sold, so that I could bail as soon as possible, getting home to where another set of books, files, pictures and knick-knacks were being stored away as well. (As a side note, it is amazing how a classroom can become a second home. I had as much stuff in room 4 of MMS as I did in my first dorm room at college!)

Moving companies are an integral part of the State Department. They come, look at your stuff, estimate the boxing needs and return a few weeks later and unload your house in mere hours. The actual packing day reminds me of a plague of locust, coming through and devouring everything in its path. The movers come in, move from room to room, leaving emptiness behind. Emptiness is the key word there. If something is in the room, it is going in the box. That means the stuff you don’t want in boxes needs to be hidden away, or you may not see it again for months. Make sure the trash is taken out of the house, or it may end up in a box. Make sure the flip-flops you wear around the yard are not left lounging by the front door or they will be carted away in a crate with rugs and frames. And heaven forbid you forget and leave a load of dirty laundry in the basket on the morning of moving day. Months and months later, you are likely to end up with a lovely, gym-sock smelling surprise that is probably best to go straight from packing box to trash bin!

Over all though, the process is really rather amazing! It is all especially astounding to those of us who are used to moving with the help of anyone who can be bribed with pizza and Pepsi! (I’m looking at you, friends and family! I’ve been on both ends of that deal more times than I can count, and as little fun as moving is, we all tend to show up when the offer is cheesy pepperoni and cold cola.)

Today, we started that moving process again. This morning, I had scheduled a pack-out survey for 10AM. I also had an appointment with the Salvation Army to pick up a donation of clothes that were not going to China with us. So, I rolled out of bed and got dressed much earlier than I have in the last few weeks, waiting for either one of them to arrive. By 10:45, I was baffled to have not heard from the moving company. I knew the Salvation Army would be anytime between 7AM-noon, but I thought the moving appointment was 10AM sharp. As it turns out, after eleven months in Arlington, Thad still doesn’t know our address and sent the poor man to some other random, non-existent address, so he was a tad late. (I got the text from Thad warning me of this predicament as the surveyor was leaving the house, too late to be properly alerted!) The company representative was a bit grumpy when he first walked in the door, but I turned on the charm and soon he was joking with me and telling me horror stories of some crazy moves he had helped with over the years.

I do have to say, it is a bit disconcerting to have someone walk into your house, wander through the rooms, opening closets and cupboards and nightstand drawers, making a mental calculation of how much your worldly possessions weigh.  He had questions about whether our TV is an LED (I have no idea!), what percentage of my clothing I was going to take on the plane with me (as much as possible!), how many pairs of shoes were going to be shipped (uhhh, every last one of them!) and how much more food we were going to buy for the consumables shipment (none, although I am questioning the amount of cereal we have…is it enough?)

The sad part of this is, he walk-though lasted less than half an hour. Actually, thirty minutes is being super generous. I would guess it lasted less than fifteen minutes. This guy knows his stuff when it comes to estimating. He would be a rock star in elementary math class!! (Remember those pictures where they would show you a stack of, say, ten coins and then a huge stack of coins and you had to estimate how many where in the huge stack? I was always terrible at those problems! I still can’t take a decent guess at how tall something is, how far away a landmark is or even how many cookies it is going to take to fill me up. I always tend to guess too tall, too far and too many!)

So now, all of my stuff has been checked off on a spreadsheet, my pack-out day has been set and it is just a matter of organizing and reorganizing the piles before that fateful day arrives. Until then, it is off to Idaho for two weeks to make the rounds, visit school and friends and family and the neighbor’s stacking goats one last time before the move to the Middle Kingdom!

 

 

Brangelina, Meet My Luggage

As the move to China edges ever nearer, my OCD-like need for organization and control is kicking in to overdrive.  The fact that the last week has been filled with *huge* forward progress is only serving to add fuel to the crazy-lady fire. (Chinese visas have come back, pack-out has been scheduled and tickets to LA and on to Chengdu have been issued!)  It doesn’t help that I’m done with ConGen, that all of our visitors have come and gone and now I have all day to sit and fret about minor details.

One particular point has recently embedded itself in my brain, much like a grain of sand would do in an oyster. (Clam? Mussel? You know, the sea-dwelling, hinged-shelled creature that inadvertently makes lovely jewelry for my fingers and wrists and neck.) Well, the hours of irritating my mind finally paid off with a jewel (or a plan as the case may be) while I was in the shower this morning. (Why is it that the shower is the home to so many brilliant ideas? I used to come up with the best lesson plan ideas while I was in the shower- ways to make kids enjoy writing sonnets or a great new expository essay idea or the perfect activity to help solidify Greek and Latin word parts in the minds of 8th graders.) Anyway, what is this latest tiny nuisance? Luggage. Baggage. Suitcases. Call it what you will, but when moving to the middle of China for two years (and then to lands unknown) the specifics become quite important.

The issue, percolating in my brain, has been about how to get the maximum use out of the luggage allowances we are given, especially providing that the rest of our belongings will arrive anywhere from a month to two months after we set foot in Chengdu. This means planning both casual and work-wear. (Yes, I said work!  I’ve had two job interviews in the past week, which look promising. An added bonus to interviewing via phone from the opposite side of the globe is that pajamas are a perfectly acceptable outfit to wear while discussing your background in education and your enthusiasm for taking on a variety of projects at the same time.) But clothing isn’t the only thing that has to go in those bags. With the rest of our shipment weeks, or months out, daily use items like dishwasher soap, mosquito spray and alarm clocks need to be considered as well.

The State Department allows each family member to check two bags as part of the travel process. Thad and I each bought a large, hard-shelled suitcase last spring as we prepared to move out here. (While I love the color and size of these cases, I do have regrets. They are too heavy!  When nearly ten of my allotted fifty pounds are spent on the container itself, I end up having empty space inside because I am over on weight before I run out of room! Lesson learned.)  So that is two bags, both in good condition. I own another roller-bag, (this one sporting an adorable 70s floral pattern) that is a perfect size for carry-on.  Last week, I ordered Thad a nice shoulder-strapped garment bag for his suits. The one we brought to DC with us is not only too small to fit his growing suit collection, but it is definitely not high quality. I’ve seen what China can do to luggage (on our first move there, my bag came off the carousal in Chengdu looking like it had been used as a buffer in an epic battle between kung-fu pandas.)  Figuring we’ve both got two arms (okay, mine may be weak and lacking in the strength department, but they can pull a suitcase or two), so we each have two rolling bags. That means we’ve currently got an empty hand!

Luggage shopping, here I come!

I knew just what we needed to take that final, coveted spot in our baggage family. I’d seen this bag several months ago, have visited it at the store several times and finally, today, adopted it into our diverse luggage home. (My baggage collection is a bit like Angelina Jolie’s family. I see it. I like it. I add it. It doesn’t matter if it matches what I already have.)  This newest bag is a bit of dark maroon, paisley-pattered perfection. This little guy (okay, not so little, especially once expanded) fills out our last spot. Now, I can roll my hard-shell and one other case. Thad can roll his hard-shell and one other case. (I told him I would carry his garment bag, since I am the one who wants the extra bag to begin with, but we all know when the time comes, I’ll be much to wimpy to actually roll two bags, have my own carry-on and haul the suit bag. But, it sounds good for now.)

So, with that bit of sand successfully coated in slime until it became a beautiful sphere of pearl, my mind is free to conjure up the next unnecessarily worrisome detail. 5 weeks and counting…

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!!