Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Cautionary Tale

On occasion, I still get asked about what it was like to be a Foreign Service spouse. Was it a big adventure? Is it hard on relationships? Is it glamorous? Does diplomatic immunity really mean that you can drive as badly as you want?

The answers are yes, yes, nope, and sort of, but the consequences of a crash in a backwater with poor health care are dire enough to make you drive safely.

Most people want to know, deep down, if they’d be happy. Would their marriage survive when so many others fail? Would they find fulfilling work? Would putting their career on hold make them resentful and angry, or would they enjoy all of that free time? (In essence, and don’t be afraid to say so, “Would I cope better than Shannon did?”)

I’ve had more than a year to think these things over, and I’ve come to some answers. They aren’t pretty, and if you want cheerleading, look elsewhere. This is for my readers who truly want to know about the dark side of Mama State.

The Foreign Service doesn’t create new problems. It takes the flaws and marital issues you already have and blows them wide open. I believe my divorce would have happened with or without the added stress of living overseas. It just happened a whole lot quicker than it would have back home. This is actually a very lucky thing, as both of us were young enough to pick up and start over.

The couples I see with the most success are the ones with an escape clause. Before they even fill out their first form, they sit down and say, “We’ll give it a fair shot for two years, if either of us is unhappy we’ll go home.” Truth is, life as an FS spouse can be stifling. There aren’t a whole lot of outlets or opportunities, just the endless rounds of Embassy life. So don’t enter into a Foreign Service marriage unless you’ve got a commitment that you can go home if you aren't happy.

And, yes, being a Foreign Service spouse can be intellecually and emotionally stifling. Your sense of self is under near-constant attack.

As one example, I was pressured to shut down my blog in 2006. I was in Sarajevo, and post management informed me that I could not have a blog that was in any way critical of the State Department. Mind you, this wasn’t because I was a State employee in my own right. That would have been intrusive, but understandable. But as a spouse of a Foreign Service Officer, I was not permitted to have opinions, nor was I permitted to broadcast them online. Asking me to stifle my voice attacked the very core of who I am. (Even now, I refuse jobs that intrude or pass judgment on my personal life.)

A quick thing you never knew: at parties, if you say you’re a spouse, the person speaking to you will usually bob around and look for someone more important to talk to. It’s maddening at first, but eventually becomes funny. It says a hell of a lot more about them than it ever will about you.

And, once you get on that plane, your career is over. Some people enjoy the Embassy hobby-jobs set aside for them, some enjoy the extra family time, some work a miracle and get a job with an overseas corporation. The people who do maintain their careers will blather about how you have to be up to the challenge, flexible and so on. (These people are even more annoying than they sound.) But, really, you’re never going to get to the corner office. A few weeks ago, I calculated that my Foreign Service sojourn probably cost me at least $50,000 lost income potential. Money well spent, but it takes a long time to dig out of a career hiatus.

The final thing I wish I’d known about was the “tough enough” macho foolishness of Embassy life. Look, I hated living in Sarajevo. I don’t like cold, I don’t cope with dreariness well, and looking at bombed-out buildings made me very depressed. That’s not a character flaw. It’s simply a personal preference.

But over and over, in embassies, on Real Post Reports, I see an attitude that if you don’t like a post, it’s because you have the “wrong attitude” or you “don’t appreciate other cultures.”If you don't like it, you should just go back to America with the other wusses. I have even heard friends say that if you’re unhappy at post, it’s your own fault because you didn’t try hard enough. All this accomplishes is taking ordinary homesickness and squashing it down until it morphs into a full-on breakdown and wack-evac. Truth is, you can be an optimistic person who appreciates other cultures and still not want to live in a bubble thousands of miles from home. Different preferences are not character flaws.

I know I’ve dwelled on the negative, but the truth is that someone has to. There’s a definite PR machine at State, and they want incoming officers and their spouses to believe that if they fall, State will catch them. Nothing is further from the truth. Yes, they'll handle the logistics. But, emotionally speaking, you're on your own. (And if you get divorced like I did, expect maybe one or two people to help you, and the rest to toss you to the bureaucratic wolves.) Go in expecting adventure, interesting friends, and great travel opportunities. But go in with an escape clause and with your eyes wide open.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

About Forgiving the Failings of Others...

Man, I am bad at it. Just last week, I blogged about how I'd be more forgiving of the mistakes and irritating behavior of others. So the Universe saw fit to present me with a few moments of glaring stupidity, just to test me.

Screen on the Green was the venue for this test. Screen on the Green, for my non-DC readers, is a lovely summer event in which you bring a blanket and snacks, and watch old movies on a big screen on the Mall. This event leaves me conflicted, as my hatred of crowds comes right up against my love of free stuff. So I got there early, claimed some blanket turf, and prepared for a lovely evening with 10,000 of my closest friends.

First up, we had the folks that bring lawn chairs. Lawn Chair People, the Mall is a flat surface. Your lawn chair blocks the view of everyone behind you, as the curvature of the Earth is an insufficient substitute for arena seating. Therefore, you can sit on the ground like everyone else. But, see, I'm on this forgiveness kick, so I thought I'd rationalize your behavior. Here's the best I could come up with:

The Lawn Chair People all have 24 karat gold backsides. See, it was the go-go 90s, and tech stocks were booming. The economy was on fire, and these people chose to celebrate their success by gilding their bottoms. However, gold is heavy. It's also highly malleable. So these folks need their lawn chairs to shape and cushion their expensive (and expansive) posteriors. Far be it from me to withdraw my compassion from people who spent their money so foolishly. Heck, just last week I committed a drunken math error and triple-tipped a bartender. So I can forgive the Gilded Backside People.

Next, we had the Narrators. There was this couple seated behind me, and the dude spent the entire movie explaining every plot point, line of dialogue, and character. Mind you, this was Casablanca, which is not the most complex film ever made. In fact, it's actually very obvious and slightly clunky. It does not require narrative assistance. Nor is it a film which deserves an MST3K treatment (especially by people who have no sense of humor).

However, this is the newer, kinder me. So I think the girl lost her short-term memory in a freak flatiron accident. She'd been trying to get her chemically assisted blonde hair perfectly straight, and instead fried her frontal lobe. Her boyfriend was merely assisting her re-entry to everyday life. However, I cannot explain why her boyfriend spent the first 10 minutes speaking to her from a standing position, waving his posterior in my face.

Last up, we had the Endless Introduction People. The movie starts, and a few latecomers decide to slip in and meet up with their friends on the blanket in front of us. Now, I simply do not understand people who are late. I'm obsessively punctual (of course, I'm obsessive about lots of things). If you show up late for a movie, indoors or out, you find an open spot and sit down as quickly as possible. These people, however, waded out to their group, and the entire blanket of ten people stands up to commence introductions. These introductions sail on as many members of the crowd shout at them to just sit down already. Finally, they do, with sheepish "who, me?" grins.

So how do I rationalize the Endless Introduction People? Simple. They're all schizophrenics, prone to extended visual hallucinations. They did not know they were at a film. Instead, every last one of them was participating in a shared psychotic episode, in which they were at a lovely garden party in the antebellum South. In reality, they were all out on a day pass from Sibley's mental ward. But as their manners and social development are key to recovery, we can forgive it.

So, people aren't rude. They just have golden backsides, a lack of short-term memory, or suffer from schizophrenic delusions.

Or maybe I should go back to hating people. Yeah, that might be a lot easier.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Celebrity Quote of the Week

Charlie Sheen, on getting engaged:

"The thing I'm most excited about is my recent engagement," he says. "She's just easy, and loving, and smart, and if everybody was just as happy to see me when I walk through a door as her, my life would be perfect."

I suppose, in a demented sort of way, this is sweet and romantic. It's nice that his fiancee makes him happy.

But, really, she's "easy, loving and smart," and is really happy whenever he walks through to door. If that's what he really wants, why not just get a dog?

Friday, August 03, 2007

The High Price of Stupidity

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to decisions. I think, in the end, you are the choices you make. The good ones, sure, but the bad ones even more.

In the bad decisions department, I’ve made some lulus. I achieved the Bad Idea Trifecta of bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad friendships. I routinely order the wrong thing in restaurants, simply because it's the only dish on the menu that I can pronounce, or because I’ve totally forgotten what I intended to order in the first place. That's the tip of the Stupidity Iceberg.

I guess lot of bad outcomes could be blamed on outside factors. Maybe I run into a lot of unsavory, controlling types because I appear small and weak. I can’t really help the way I look, but I can choose to walk away from people who bully me.

I’ve spent the last year trying to push out the willful, repetitive stupidity. Doing the same foolish stuff over and over is exhausting for me, and probably very boring to those who care about me (or read my blog). I spent my twenties lurching from one disaster to the next, mainly because whatever I was doing seemed like such a good idea at the time.

So far, my thirties have felt much more methodical. I occasionally slip up, but in exciting and novel ways. Being smart about my life is a lot less boring than I thought it would be. I’ve made a conscious effort to categorize and root out the mistakes from my past. I have four categories so far: Poor Impulse Control, Assuming the Best in Others, Inertia, and Who the Hell Knows/Miscellaneous Goofiness.

But I’ve decided this week that my self-improvement project should be a little less inwardly focused. (Yes, I know introspection is part of self-improvement, but I also know that I’m not a terribly introspective person.) So the next step will be to forgive the mistakes of others, especially if those mistakes don’t affect me personally. I’ll try not to see someone else’s bad judgment as something to get bent out of shape about.

If you go through life looking for things to be offended about, you’ll have plenty of steam to get you through the day. But if you assume that most people mean well, it’s easier to sleep at night. I’m feeling pretty old these days, and I really need my sleep.

So if you know me out in Reality Land, and I’ve ever nagged you about something stupid that you did, I’m sorry. It doesn’t change the fact that you probably screwed up, and I wish you’d wise up already. It just means that I’ll try not to take it so personally next time.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Want Ads, Decoded

I am a firm believer in temp-to-perm, especially if you're an administrative professional like me. Because, let's face it, secretarial work is remarkably similar everywhere you go. So it's better to try a place out and get a feel for the environment before you sign on long-term.

On occasion, though, I do cruise the want ads. What I find there is usually so unappealing that I go back to my original temp-to-perm strategy. So, for all you employers out there, here is how job seekers translate common phrases:

"Fast-paced" can mean that you will have a busy, productive day. It can also mean that you will never have time to go to the bathroom, let alone eat lunch anywhere except for your desk. Please clearly delineate between "busy" and "hectic."

"Competitive salary and benefits" means their salary and benefits are competitive...with those of Indonesia.

"Excellent salary and benefits" means they pay slightly more than the "competitive" people.

"Other duties as assigned", like "fast-paced," can mean one of two things. Maybe teamwork is expected, and you have to pitch in on stuff here and there. That's fine. Or it means they don't really know what they want from this position and expect you to figure it out.

"Close supervision" means micromanagement, meddling, and a host of other unpleasant words that begin with the letter M.

"Rapidly shifting priorities" means only one thing: the boss is disorganized and one of those people that doesn't know what they want, and will therefore interrupt you constantly.

My preferred job listings have the following aspects:

They state their salary range upfront. Because if I want less or more money than they're willing to spend, why waste everyone's time? (Yes, sometimes I want less money, as high salaries often follow mandatory overtime.)

They give clear job expectations, without resorting to a bullet-pointed opus. I want a general feel for what the job entails, not an exhaustive list of everything I might potentially do over the course of a year.

They clearly state the name of the organization, and what they're about. This is a problem particular to Craigslist. Don't tell me it's a Glover Park real estate firm, or an environmental nonprofit, or whatever. What if your organization clubs baby seals or distributes kiddie porn? My resume contains my home address and phone number, and I have the right to know where it's going. What if you're not really an employer, but a psycho stalker with an office manager fetish?

Does anyone else have any want ad or job hunting pet peeves?