Saturday, December 31, 2016


Just days before Christmas, we lost our Dodger. 

He was 18.5 years old and a member of the family since I brought him (and his nearly identical sister Daphne) home in a basket at six weeks old.  In re-reading my post from last year (read here) when Daphne died, I see that I can't explain any differently the pain of such a loss nor the additional difficulty of having it happen while living abroad. Therefore I'd simply like to write about my buddy. 

Dodger and I had grown very close over the past few years. Partly due to his age and partly because since joining the State Department, he settled into the life of an indoor cat with far less independent time outside. I've seen him successfully through radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, and in Bogota five years ago, during a routine vet visit, he had an anaphylactic reaction to an injection and I watched what I feared were his last yowl and gasp for breath. Clearly they weren't, thanks to the fast actions of my vet and a veterinary ICU hospital just minutes away. (Trust me, I still relive those "what-if" horrors in my mind.)  Then last September he suffered a blood clot that reduced his control over his hindquarters greatly. Fortunately, he was able to re-gain a lot of strength and mobility over time and moved around the apartment as "Wobbles the Cat," even getting up onto the bed and couch, first with help of steps and then a ramp of cushions. However, he began to depend on us more and more. 

On Halloween, he had another set-back, reducing his mobility even more. Finally, on December 23rd, I came into the living room in the morning to feed the boys and start the day only to find Dodgy on his couch crying and crying.  He was unable to sit or stand on his own and for the first time - he seemed to be in pain. The vet came into the clinic an hour before opening hours to see him and after her exam, gave us various options for tests, possible MRIs or ultrasounds of his heart, and various medications we could try to keep him going through Christmas. Only when pushed to be brutally honest did she acknowledge that the very best result we could hope for would be that he returned to how he was the night before. And that chance was slim. Her best guess was that he had a stroke, perhaps caused by another clot. 

I remembered a time about seven or eight years ago when my beautiful black mare "Babe" was worsening with a chronic disease.  I'd be caring for her through her decline for over two years and in a conversation with my husband about when it might be "time" for her, I defended her by noting that she still had a few good days each week.  When my husband asked me if I wanted to wait until she only had bad days, I realized that she would never become a new blossom again. I was only watering a brown plant. She was never going to GET BETTER, and instead of preserving her life, I was only prolonging her inevitable death out of my own reluctance to say goodbye, out of guilt, and out of fear of my own pain and sadness.  These weren't the right reasons.

So instead of exploring all the options and their accompanying false hopes - I remembered Babe's lesson. The vet gave Dodger a pain reliever and sedative to help him feel more comfortable, told us to take him home and just be with him and then come back mid-day with our decision.  He spent his last hours on our bed with us and with Toby, the sun streaming through the window from a blue-sky winter day to warm his fur and old bones. I talked to him, we looked each other straight in the eyes and I just petted him and petted him and petted him. He was relaxed and breathing easily, but the pain reliever had only slightly muted his cries. With that, we knew our decision.

It seemed impossible to know when to stand up, when to put him in his carrier, when to point the car back towards the clinic. It just seemed easier to sit there and stroke him for one last minute. But eventually we did move. My husband and step-daughter were there with me as the vet talked us through the procedure. When he took his last breath, he was already in a deep sleep and felt nothing. The people he knew, loved and trusted were right with him until the end, which is the most any of us can hope for. For the second time in just over a year, I said goodbye and asked for the forgiveness from someone I loved as much as any human family member.  

I will leave you with pictures spanning nearly two decades of memories. He was our Dodger, Dodgy, D-Man, Dodger-Gee (after we watched "Slumdog Millionaire"), Heavy-D, and briefly for an unexplained reason after watching the History Channel, Robert E. Lee. The man in the gray striped pajamas. 
Our friend. 

With Nutmeg in his favorite spot.

Always the mom-cat of the family, Daphne seeing to Dodger's hard to reach spots.

Dodger (left) and Daphne learning how to heat the house.

The only kind of mouse he ever caught. 

Cool-cat at Christmas years ago with his luxurious ruff. 

Spring time under our blooming plum tree. We sprinkled Daphne's ashes in this garden this summer.  

After a good BBQ, the grill-licking and napping commenced. 

All an old guy needs is a basket and a sunny spot in Mexico. 
I never thought Toby would be the last one standing. The tiny kitten adopted from a teenage girl with a box in front of the grocery store late one night on the way home from work. The one I was "Just going to foster until I find the right owner because, well, I already have two kittens."  


Signing off for now,

Tabby in Tow

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Handshake Day: The Day Formerly Known as Flag Day

I often  joke that I joined the Foreign Service so that I could finally live in a house with more than one bathroom.  Another reason is because I always need something on the horizon to look forward to, to wonder about, to plan for.  I endlessly spin the "What If?" wheel and try different lives on for size.  This is why the State Department's world map of our overseas posts is hung in front of our treadmill.  Therefore, while bidding season is certainly an anxiety-inducing process, it's the kind of anxiety that comes with a toy surprise at the end. 

Our first two tours were announced with an exciting Flag Day ceremony. I learned of our third tour (my second as an FSO), through an email that simultaneously was sent to thousands of officers worldwide who were bidding at that time.  In Juarez, with its crew of 48 entry-level officers, this made for yelps, gasps, smiles (no tears that I saw) and a lot of leaving our interview window (and some perplexed applicants) to hug each other.  But the mid-level process of informing bidders of their assignments is a horse of a different color. Although 2016 debuted the improved and abbreviated bidding season, it still d r a g g e d   o u t  over a week leading up to "Handshake Day" as bureaus made decisions of their top candidate(s), checked in with candidates to confirm interest and then re-shuffled their decks as needed. Prohibited from offering a final handshake (read: JOB) until October 31st this year, many bidders were pre-informed of their Most Favorite Bidder status for certain jobs in the week prior to Halloween.   

The "street view" of this process, however, was that day by day I heard from friends worldwide who had/had not gotten these "air kiss" emails (see this post for what that means).  Monday became Tuesday became Thursday without receiving any word from Consular Affairs, despite staring at my BlackBerry's little red New Message notification light and calculating and then re-calculating the time difference between Eastern and Eastern European Time.  Finally, just before going to bed on Thursday, the email arrived. It said that my bid for a particular position was being most favorably viewed (or something like that). 

Therefore, in keeping with the Flag Day tradition, I'd like to announce that we will be heading to....

The Netherlands Antilles?

Let me give you another clue:

Yup - back to the Mother Ship in Washington, DC. 

So now let's talk about some difficult stuff. Where to start?

First, when that BlackBerry red light blinked and I furiously typed in my password, saw a message from Consular Bidders and quickly scanned it, I was in our living room, winding down the evening and watching a bit of TV with my husband and my visiting mother and step father.  We'd just seen something - I don't remember what - that prompted my husband to start joking around and singing "Vamos a la playa!" because first on our bid list was a job in a popular island tourist destination in the Caribbean. This is a busy post with a huge need for consular officers, for which I already have the required the language score and for which the timing of our departure from Bucharest coincided nicely with the job's start date.  Meaning: I thought I had a very good shot at it. 

As I read the short message and saw that instead I was the top candidate for a domestic job ranked second on my list, I knew I had only a moment before I had to break his heart. 

You would now be correct in thinking, "Well then why did you bid on this job if you really wanted to go elsewhere?"  Because I had to list ten viable options. Because it's a great job. Because the position description, the conversations I had with the chief of the unit, the second in charge and the incumbent currently occupying the chair all made it sound like it was designed for me, my professional background and my personal interests. Because back in 2012 when I first saw someone who was doing this job - I thought to myself, "I want to do THAT!" 

That's why.  

The rest of the message said something like, "Where does this position rank on your bid list?" meaning, "And do you like us, too, or should we move on?"  I read it out loud to my husband and family and then in private conversation in our bedroom, my husband and I agonized over how to word my reply. I didn't want to lose this opportunity, but also wanted to let them know that, ahem, we really wanted to stay abroad. Essentially, this is a game of The Price is Right.  You contestant can have this beautiful washer-dryer set in front of you - OR - what's behind Curtain Number Two!  Because I certainly could have at that moment responded by saying, ehhhh - no thanks.  

Would this have endeared myself to the folks in Consular Affairs after selling myself so confidently for this position?  (I think that answer is obvious.)  

Would I have then been re-shuffled into the deck to become one of the unassigned on Handshake Day?  Possibly.  

Would I then be assigned to somewhere we really would prefer not to go at this time? Also possible. 

Did I swear to be worldwide available when I was hired? Yes. 

Had my husband and I discussed the eventual reality of going back to DC? Yes.  

So - what is it?

Let me now go back to the top of my posting.  Besides the jokes about joining the FS to have a house with more than one bathroom, I really joined so that we could live abroad and do really cool work at the same time. This was our plan from the day we met: to have an ex-pat life of fresh experiences and adventures, of feeling alive when faced with the joys and difficulties that come with living in new environments. But going back to the States, we'll just be regular ole' Americans. My husband will be a middle-aged guy looking for a job in a very competitive market with six years away from his usual profession and a desire not to return to that line of work anyway. One person's salary would barely cover our expenses in DC and drain all savings. More important - my husband has his own sense of pride and value that is very much tied to his being a productive member of society, having meaningful daily activities and the ability to carry his own financial burden. 

Further, moving to DC comes with some icky logistics. Not only does it mean we pay for our own housing in one of the most expensive U.S. cities, but also all the belongings and furniture the State Department kindly stored for us when we joined nearly six years ago will be delivered to our apartment within 90 days of our arrival. Please picture us in 600 square feet with cardboard boxes of text books, high school yearbooks and gardening equipment draped in colorful blankets. And paying 60% of our salary for the pleasure. 
I'm thinking...


Just add a litter box and two geriatric cats to the picture.

Please read this not as First World Whining, but as a real Foreign Service life tale with tentacles that reach out to zap sensitive nerves involving family member lives and difficult marital/family decisions.  (And we're not even a family of five trying to do the same thing - I can't even imagine what that'd be like.)

In the end, I am naturally an optimistic person who trusts that every turn in the road will bring unexpected pleasures.  We have always loved living in DC, a city that offers everything one could want (so long as they can pay for it and don't mind sharing it with millions of others).  I am excited about the actual job I will be doing and trust that when one does what they're passionate about - good things come.  I also have faith in my husband that he will have a more independent life and will be able to feel like an individual in his own right as opposed to the Trailing Spouse.  And maybe after all, it will really be like this:

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Bidding Mid-Level - May the Hunger Games Begin

Image result for signposts for far destinations

Ahhh yes, it's that time of year again! 

The trees are mellowing from vibrant greens to muted browns with yellow highlights. The sunlight has a softer, less brilliant feel and the morning commute requires a jacket.

No, no - not autumn - it's BIDDING time of year! 

The time of year that affects whole swathes of the Embassy at once, regardless of rank.  The time of year when we all have to start jockeying for our next job. Bumping into a coworker from another section in the hallway about now and the conversation is likely to go something like this: 

"Urgh... I'm bidding now..." to which you must offer a sympathetic nod.

"What's looking good to you? Where're you thinking of heading?" 

A list of continents, countries, specific jobs or simply, "Probably DC" comes next, which then will generally prompt: "Hey, my former boss/coworker/A-100 classmate is now chief of the whichever section there, at least I think she's still there. Let's see we were together in Ottawa in 2010, transferred in 2013, then language- yup, she'd still be there. I'd be happy to put in a good word for you." 

And so it goes - welcome to the world of Mid-Level Bidding!

Let me back up just a bit for you.  As an FSO or an FSS, the first two tours are directed. This doesn't mean we don't bid - we certainly do (full description here)  but from the third tour onward, and once tenured, we're considered to be mid-level and therefore the process is completely different. 

I'll walk you through the step-by-step, but be warned that it's as simple as this:

It all begins when the bid list comes out. 

Hahahaha! Almost fooled you!  
See, actually it starts well before the "official" bidding season (and for the more compulsive among us, this was like a year ago) with a scroll through the Department's Projected Vacancies street of dreams and nightmares. This is a list of all positions that are projected to be vacant (hence the name) during a particular transfer season. In my case, this is summer 2017.  In the FS we have only two seasons: summer and winter. There is no such thing as spring or fall bidding.  The summer season has the vast majority of jobs as anyone with school-aged children wants to move while the kids are on break to not interrupt the school year.  (Come to think of it, I don't know how this fares for kids in the Southern Hemisphere, but that's something for another time.)  From this list we can see what may, probably, possibly be available when we'll be leaving our current posts.  Why all the qualifiers? Because so many things can change. People leave their post early (curtail); people request to stay longer (extend); jobs are moved from one job classification to another (ceded); jobs are eliminated and jobs are created. Therefore the Projected Vacancies list is considered very fluid, and nothing is set until the official start of the bidding season, which just happened a few weeks ago. Therefore, the Projected Vacancies list just gives you an IDEA of what MIGHT be available. For me, sometimes it's the carrot that keeps me going. 
Finally, they wave the green flag for the official start to the budding season, the real bid list is active, and we're off to the Lobbying and Bidding races!  

Lobbying essentially means "applying" for a position you like, but naturally it is a multi-faceted process involving many sub-steps and side roads.  The object of the game is to submit a list of five to 10 jobs which are appropriate for your job level, language skills, timing of arrival, required experience and - of course - somewhere you might actually WANT to go and where your family won't leave you if you get sent there.  A senior officer once told me, "When you start your career - all you care about is where you're going. Later on, it's about the job you'll be doing. And finally, you just care about who you'll work with."  So, keeping ALL this in mind, this first elimination round will take your list from perhaps hundreds of possibilities (at my level at least), down to about 20 you could stomach.  
We start like this:

Image result for flickr salmon swimming upstream

With this shortened list, the next step is to contact the people who currently have the jobs you like (the incumbent) and ask them what it's like. You'll want to know not only about the work itself, but also the rest of the package: job opportunities for family members, pet importation, the city, the country, the work atmosphere, available schools, the medical situation etc... You'll bug the incumbent for some of these details, but the rest you'll research on your own either through the Department's resources, word of mouth over lunch table conversations, or through online resources, like Talesmag. If after all that, the spot sounds like it might be a fit, you'll also ask the incumbent who the decision maker is/will be as you'll need this for the next step.

Next, you'll have to contact the decision maker(s) to actually lobby for the position. Here is where the process goes in a million different directions, because this now depends on whether the bureau in Washington (which could be a regional bureau or one broken out by a special purpose, called a "functional bureau"), or the actual post have a say in who gets selected for the job.  Frequently it means contacting BOTH the bureau and the post.  As a first timer to lobbying, there is all sorts of awkwardness about just HOW to go about this. Is it just an email? A cold-call? How formal? How casual? Do I attach resume and list of references or wait to be asked? What if they don't respond - when do I bug them again? Do we have anyone in common I can refer to as an ice-breaker? If so - did that person get along well with this person or would I be shooting myself in the foot to lobby Santa Claus by telling him that my good friend Mr. Scrouge thought I'd be a great fit for this job?

In the meanwhile, don't forget to request your 360s. 
Your 360s - or in the Consular Affairs Bureau, the "CBAT" Consular Bidding and Assessment Tool - are references from peers, supervisors and subordinates with whom you've worked and who can honestly judge your ability to do the job and whether or not you play nice with others.  Things like: Is she detail-oriented or big-picture? Is she better in a team or working alone? Does she contribute to a positive work environment? And finally... Would you work with this person again?  

Okay, fair enough. So these 360s are sent to a central repository where all decision makers can access them right?  Nice try pal, but it ain't that easy. 

Depending on which/how many bureaus one is lobbying, you may have to request multiple DIFFERENT types of 360s from all your colleagues, bosses and supervisees, each with different types of questions and methods of submission. Some are multiple choice, some want narrative, some use comparisons and some all of the above. And remember, not only are you going through bidding yourself, you're also writing these things again and again for others.  It's just the way it is. 

Okay, so now we've narrowed down the bid list to five to ten jobs that meet all the criteria.  Now we're looking something like this:
Image result for flickr salmon swimming upstream

I'm learning that one should really only lobby hard for jobs they really want.  Because besides feeling like a two-faced liar selling yourself by listing reasons why you are perfect for the job and why they should pick YOU YOU YOU, you don't want to get the decision makers all excited about you if frankly, you're just not that into them.  So you throw you hat in the ring for up to ten jobs, but maybe you only lay on the charm for your top few picks.  

As the bidding season progresses, you'll begin to interview for some of the spots. This is a bit like speed-dating over the phone and across the time zones and it's awkward as each party tries to read the other to determine if they're a good match in both skills and personality for the job.  But at the same time, you want to know if you stand a chance or whether the job is out of your league.  The closer all get to the decision-making wire (aka "Handshake Day"), the more the decision makers and the applicants start to feel each other out (not UP!) about how serious they are. Something informally called an "air kiss" may be offered to let the #1 pick know that they are #1 and if it is reciprocal, they could expect to be offered the job.

Which brings us to Handshake Day.

Yes, it is actually called that.  This year, it will fall on Halloween, which I find quite ironic as truly some of us will get treats and some of us will get a rock.

Or, to continue my prior analogy:

Image result for bear and salmon flick

Only now, being caught by the bear is a GOOD thing and not the end of life as you know it.

Unfortunately, Handshake Day is not a happy day for everyone, and there will be a great many (great) people who are NOT eaten by the bear and who will just slide back down into the pool below to try again with another bear.  You see, there are far more salmon than there are bears, particularly at my level.  

If one is not a "successful bidder" as it's called, they get to continue bidding, but now the list has been scraped down to the bones.  Only bad posts? No, it's not that at all. It just means that we bidders have to "be flexible" as they say, and look at jobs that might not have caught our eye the first time.  Consider regions previously unconsidered, consider learning languages never heard of or countries you'll have to explain to your parents.  This process can, and does, continue well into the new year!  However, as people are shuffled into spots - it's very possible that positions will open that are really awesome which the original selectee, for any number of reasons, has abandoned.  And before you know it - you're going to a place that you didn't even know was originally available. 

So that's mid-level bidding in a very large nutshell.

Now, if you're part of a tandem couple (two employees in the same family), you can expect your bidding strategy to go from this:

Tic Tac Toe Clip ArtTo something more like this:

Image result for rubik's cube

Next up:  Stay tuned to see what handshake day reveals!