Monday, January 21, 2019

Shutdown but Out in Maine

On Snowshoes
Three weeks of Furlough-di, Furlough-da! are coming to an end.  Funds were mysteriously found last Thursday with which to pay State Department employees, and thus my young friend Catriona and I are in her Land Cruiser somewhere between Bangor and Augusta, ME, as we make our way back to DC.  We’re supposed to report to work on Tuesday, but who knows?  We’re racing a winter storm.  The sky is sunny here, but it won’t be for long.  We’ll overnight in Hartford, CN, and indications are that we’ll wake in the morning to more snow and ice than we may be able to handle.  What will be will be.  There are worse things in life than an extra day in Hartford.

Sigh.  I’d be returning to DC whether or not funds had been found.  Last Wednesday I was re-classified as excepted (essential) and told to report to work without pay.  At least now we know we’ll get some pay, even if it’s unclear how long the mysterious funds will hold out.

Three weeks at home in Maine.  That’s the longest stretch I have been able to spend at home since NN came with me on R&R from Kazakhstan in 2016.  Three weeks is just long enough to feel one has settled in at home, not merely come for a quick visit.  I had been scheduled for a week of vacation at New Year’s, but the government shutdown took us all by surprise.  I decided to stay put at home and canceled my return ticket.  Catriona, also on furlough, drove up to join me mid-way through my second.

Maine is the one place on the East Coast of the US that reminds me of both Romania and Kazakhstan, the countries that came to feel the most like home to me while I served overseas.  The hills and mountains of Maine are like those in Romania, as is the maple syrup.  The snow and wind are like Kazakhstan.  January temperatures down to -18C are normal in my part of the state.  A patch of brown earth would be worthy of shocked surprise.  I love winter.  I love snow.  I love my home in Maine.

How did I spend my time?  I couldn’t get Hillary, my 1991 rear wheel drive station wagon, out of the driveway, and thus I stayed close to home.  I arrived in Bangor by bus on December 29 and did my grocery shopping before paying a princely sum to a Lyft driver to take me all the way home from Bangor.  I easily had food for a month, and my little town’s general store supplies the daily needs of bread and milk.

On other visits home I would drive to Baxter State Park or to Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument for my hiking or winter snow shoeing.  Not getting there turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it forced me to look for alternatives right where I live.  To my happy surprise, I discovered Maine’s Interconnected Trail System (ITS) for ATVs and snowmobiles.  One of the main routes passes through my town, and during the work week there is no one on it.  I could snowshoe for as long and as far as I wanted and not meet any person or any vehicle.  The woods and hills were just as winter quiet and beautiful as those I usually drive to get to.  I was thrilled to find that I have this outdoor resource treasure right at my doorstep.

I also have my own 32 acres, the front 7-8 acres of which are partially cleared.  I clipped on the cross country skis that I brought with me from Kazakhstan.  I have a long way to go before I qualify even as a novice, but I am able to push myself around on the skis, not to mention get a good aerobic and upper body workout as I do it.

I set my own time at home in Maine.  I mean that not only in the sense of doing what I want when I want but also in the sense of choosing my own time zone.  With a deferential nod to those who determine boundaries, my part of Maine has no business being in Eastern Standard Time.  If the zone boundaries were drawn without reference to borders, we’d be in Atlantic Time with the Canadian maritime.  That’s the time zone I choose to live in while at home.  It lets me see the January sun set at 5pm, not 4pm.  I love nothing better than to sit on my porch even in January and watch the sun go down through my trees.

Evenings were for music, reading, movies, and serials.  Even in Maine I enjoy watching Russian serials, if not Russian news, and after Catriona’s arrival we would take turns choosing what to watch.    She introduced me to The Terror, a fictionalized account of Franklin’s ill-fated 19th century expedition to find the Northwest Passage.  What better place than Maine to watch a serial about explorers locked in ice and eternal winter?  I rejoined by playing Stan Roger’s Northwest Passage, a song that both Sultana and my son love.

Shutdown but by all means out in the great outdoors:  those were my three weeks in Maine.  Only 32 weeks remain until my mandatory separation for age, an event that I look at more as high school graduation than retirement.  Maine is now home, and I feel a pang of regret as we leave.  I want more time in the Maine woods, but if there is a plus to our return to DC, it is that we will be able to participate in person in whatever protests are being organized.  I’ve already appeared in protest once in front of the White House.  There undoubtedly will be more such appearances.

We’re nearing Augusta now.  The sky has already darkened as we head south to the equally dark politics of Washington.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Breaking up with Facebook Is Hard to Do . . . but Worth the Effort?

I've had an uneasy feeling about remaining on Facebook for some time now.  For others there might have been specific events that prompted them to raise the #DeleteFacebook flag.  Perhaps it was the ever growing saga of how Facebook sees user data as a commodity?  Perhaps the Cambridge Analytica scandal in early 2016 was the turning point?  Many of us on the progressive left were sickened by the irresponsible role Facebook played in the 2016 election as a source of disinformation and as an outlet for Russian propaganda.  I know I was, and I was just as much disturbed that such disinformation found a ready audience.

Like many in the baby boom generation, I first opened a Facebook account some ten years ago as a way of staying in touch with my son.  He had stopped using e-mail, and Facebook was all the rage for his age group.  The irony is that he has long since moved away from social media.

I became a large scale user of Facebook after gender transition in 2010-11.  I was in Romania at the time and had become well known in the Romanian lgbtqi+ community.  Everyone was on Facebook, and before long I had more Romanian Facebook friends than I did American.  When I left Romania in 2013, Facebook remained a window into the lives of those I had left behind in Romania.  The same has been true of my friends in Kazakhstan.  For a foreign service officer, Facebook allows at least a glimpse into the lives of those we have known and sometimes loved in the countries where we have served.

But does that glimpse have substance?  I lost count of how many Facebook friends I have a long time ago, but I believe it is now in the 1000 range.  How many glimpses do the Facebook algorithms give when the number of friends has grown that large?  Where do the glimpses that populate our news feeds come from?  I can search for a friend and find out what she or he is up to, but when one comes down to it, isn't it also possible to do that by a simple e-mail to that friend?

If there was a specific time when my relationship to Facebook soured, it was in the crowd tuition funding campaign we undertook for Sultana Kali.  During that campaign we collected more than we had any reason to expect, but almost none of the contributions came via Facebook friends.  The bulk came from outside the social network, a network that turned out to be hollow.

Facebook played a foul role in our 2016 election, a role made all the more foul by its attempts to cover up or belittle Russia's use of social networking as a means of dividing us as a people by playing on our worst instincts.  Without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networking platforms, perhaps we would not live in a world today where the occupant of the White House is dangerously unhinged and the U.S. role in the world is in rapid decline?

Anyone who has followed me on Facebook knows that I have published little there since leaving Kazakhstan in 2017.  At most, I spend perhaps 5-15 minutes a day on the platform to glance at the news feed and look for any personal messages.  Even as a messaging platform, I have found Facebook wanting.  WhatsApp is a better way of staying in direct touch with specific individuals and groups of friends.  Kazakhstan as a country seems to run on WhatsApp.  More recently I learned that Telegram is a better, more secure messaging platform not under Facebook control, and I plan to move there.

That brings me to my 2019 New Year's resolution to move off Facebook.  I deleted my Twitter account months ago, and I've never really been a user of Instagram.

Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face?  Will the loss be worth the gain in control over my own data and a clearer conscience?  I don't know.  I've toyed with this decision for months, dancing around it without coming to a firm yes or no.  In the end I've decided that the only way to know is to try.  Rather than deleting my Facebook account outright, I'll deactivate it for a half year and experience what life is like without Facebook.  If the loss outweighs the gain, I can reactivate the account.

I did say New Year's resolution, didn't I?  Let's make that Old New Year, the beginning of the new year by the Julian calendar, January 14 in our Gregorian system.  That will give those who wish to stay in touch with me time to copy my non-Facebook  contact information, which is:
e-mail:
msrobyn-alice@usa.net
robyn.aja.mccutcheon@gmail.com
WhatsApp:  pegged to my Kazakhstani telephone, +7 771 164-0368
I also pledge to write more often in this web journal, perhaps not much more at first due to work and travel schedules, but more with time as we move into the year.  I am also still on LinkedIn.

As an experiment I've also opened an account on Diaspora*, a decentralized open-source social networking platform.  There are not many people on Diaspora* yet, but perhaps we can change that together?  If you want to follow me there, you can sign up at https://joindiaspora.com/ and look for me as robyn_alice_mccutcheon@diaspora.dev.facil.services.

That's my #DeactivateFacebook challenge to myself for 2019.  Forward I go into a time before Facebook existed.  Happy New Year, С Новым Годом, and Happy New Networking to all!


Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year's Tidings of Passport Cheer

To say 2018 was not been a good year for the T of the U.S. lgbtqi+ community would be to put it mildly.  Between the Trump administration's push to expel all transgender members of the military, a leaked memo detailing a plan by the Department of Health and Human Services to erase us, and the recent deletion of the Office of Personnel Management's guidance of transgender persons in the U.S. federal government -- the news has been unrelenting and almost never good.  With each executive branch step to remove transgender protections, the surface area of the island on which we stand shrinks.  Allies who say not to worry as protections are stripped away sound at times like climate change deniers who don't see hurricanes, tsunamis, and wild fires as portents telling us that time is running out.

Another worrying development this year were edits to the U.S. State Department web site regarding changing gender markers in passports.  Ever since Secretary Hillary Clinton simplified the procedures for changing that marker, a U.S. passport has become the ID of choice for most transgender Americans.  Rather than documentation of invasive surgeries that had been required in the past, only a letter from a certified medical provider that the bearer is receiving "appropriate clinical treatment" is needed when applying for a new passport.

Those worrying web site edits included replacing gender with sex, a change that for many of us harks back to the old days of sex reassignment surgery. Did this reflect a change in procedures?  The rules that Secretary Clinton simplified could be changed by a simple stroke of the pen by a subsequent Secretary.  Were the web site changes a harbinger of changes to come?  Adding to the worry, there were several reports from the field that people who had changed the gender marker in their passports a decade or more ago were being asked to provide documentation of their gender transition when they went to **renew** their passports.  The fact that additional factors may have been in play for these persons did little to allay fears.

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) went into action quickly by requesting a meeting with the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.  Other organizations also requested meetings, and I was involved behind the scenes in a couple of preparatory phone calls.  The report back from those meetings was not to worry, that nothing had changed other than an unfortunate, ill-prepared edit to the passport web site.  Nationwide, however, there was a rush on the part of many to renew passports sooner rather than later lest those soothing words be replaced by another executive tweet that would change everything.

I should know.  Despite being a Foreign Service Officer, I also worried that things could change and not for the better.  I hold a diplomatic passport with five years' validity and a tourist passport that would expire in 2021.  I had already had some trouble using the tourist passport on its own in that my hair style, hair color, and some facial features had changed since the passport was issued in 2011.  Far better to renew the passport now, I thought, before I retire next summer and surrender the diplomatic passport.  Also, if anything were to go wrong with the renewal, I would rather it happen now while I'm still employed at State and can work the back channels to raise a ruckus.  So it was that in the first weekend of December I dropped into my corner mailbox an envelope containing my application, old passport, new photo, and letter explaining my request for early renewal. 

All of this brings me to those good tidings of New Year's passport cheer.  I arrived in my little Maine town last Friday evening and went to the post office to retrieve my mail on Saturday.  There it was, mixed in with two months' bulk mail:  my new tourist passport.  It was issued on December 21 with full ten year validity.  No questions were asked.  

I now join my voice to the soothing words from NCTE and elsewhere:  the procedures established by Secretary Clinton are still in place.  To this I add my pride in my own organization, the Department of State.  Sane minds are still in contril.  For the first time since the debacle with the denial of Sultana Kali's student visa in the summer of 2017, I applaud my colleagues in the Bureau of Consular Affairs.  They are doing the right thing.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Furlough-di, Furlough-da!

Yes, I'm on furlough, one of those 380,000 or so non-excepted federal employees who have been told to stay home.  I went to my office the day after Christmas to do my orderly shutdown, which for me consisted of tying up some loose ends and writing notes for the one deputy in our office who is designated excepted and who, without pay, is charged with handling any emergencies that arise.

As a non-excepted federal employee on furlough, I am not permitted to do anything related to my job, not even as an unpaid volunteer.  Excepted employees, some 420,000 of them, are required to go to work and do their jobs, but they will not be paid.  Neither status is enviable, and I do wonder to what extent the average citizen will ponder the fact that TSA agents conducting security at airports are not being paid.  

I took the do no work instruction at face value and headed home to Maine two days after Christmas.  I will stay here for the duration.  From all signs the duration will be at least through the first week of January.  I, for one, expect it could go longer, perhaps much longer.
Evening View from my Maine Porch
I make no secret of my Northeast, urban, progressive views, and thus it is easy to guess where I come down in the debate over a border wall.  I believe the November mid-term election shows a plurality of the U.S. population has come down on the same side of the debate.  On this issue, as on many others, increasing numbers can no longer abide the current occupant of the White House who is coming to look more and more like a sore loser, even a cry baby who believes a tantrum will get him what he wants.  I hope that the coming weeks will finally disabuse him of that notion.

Much of my life both in and outside of federal service has involved support for improved human rights around the globe.  That's where the funding should go, not to the construction of a physical barrier that has never proved effective for those countries that have tried them through human history. 

Did I describe myself as someone of "Northeast, urban, progressive views?"  Make that more a "European style social democrat" who at some level believes Marx was right.  Ending mass migrations across national borders means, in the long run, raising living standards on a global scale.  In a perverse sense globalization has been a step in bringing U.S. workers down to the level of workers in other countries.  The golden age of the U.S. worker in the first two decades after World War II was a fluke brought about largely by the circumstance that the US was the only major nation where industry had not been flattened.  It was just a matter of time before the Japans, Germanies, Chinas, and Koreas of the world would make themselves known.  
The great failure in the US during the post-War decades was, in my view, its failure to invest heavily in education and retraining.  Those who want should be able to attend college for free or nearly so, and those who don't should have programs available that train them in the skills needed to work in a modern, information economy.  In this failure I include myself and most of my urban, progressive friends, all of us focused on our own lives and largely blind to a middle America that was coming to resemble the post-Soviet Russian landscape of abandoned, rusting, non-competitive factories surrounded by factory towns with no future.

That's my view, and it's more than just words.  I have been writing my letters since the election of November 2016.  I have been making my monthly donations.  I have canvassed door-to-door for the progressive candidate in my district.  My own efforts have been meager, I know, compared to those of others, but they are a start that I hope to expand after my official retirement next August.

In the meantime, as on this day, I'll look out the window of my small home at the beauty of a sunset and a snowy Maine landscape of white.  Unlike young federal friends who have mortgages, car payments, and families, I've got savings to weather the financial seas when my next paycheck does not come on January 11.  From what I know of many of those young, progressive friends, however, they too look at this as a key moment to stand firm.  To steal from a classic Beatles song,
Furlough-di, Furlough-da, furlough's on, girl!
Democracy it must go on!
Let that be our tune as we cross over into 2019. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018


Three Little Orleans Log Book Entries

The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) (www.patc.net) is a volunteer organization that has existed, I believe, since the 1930s and has responsibility for maintaining the Appalachian Trail (AT) and other blue-blazed trails in the Virginia-Maryland area.  I have been a member for at least 20 years, even if I regret to report that I’m what you would call only a “cabin member.”  You see, PATC also maintains a network of cabins ranging from primitive hike-in cabins to a Victorian house in Harper's Ferry, WV, and many of them are open only to members.  I’ve stayed at a number PATC cabins through the years, but the one that has come to occupy a special place in my life is in Little Orleans (LO), MD, just off the C&O Canal to the west of Hancock.  It’s an in-between cabin in that it has electricity and running water but has an outdoor privy as a toilet.  There’s no Internet and no cell phone coverage.  I have spent several critical days of my life here, in particular a week in April 2004 just before I joined the Foreign Service and another in 2007 when I was first grappling seriously with the question of divorce that would lead to my fourth and finally successful transition attempt just a few years later.  

Those weeks of seclusion and “coming to terms” with key life changes mingle with joyous memories of being here with my son for the Leonid meteors in 1999 . . . or was it in 2000?  I was here again just last June when I was coming to the conclusion that I must resign from the Foreign Service.  I used my quiet time here to finish my letter of resignation, a letter that, thanks to several close FSO friends, I did not have to send.  Now with less than a year to go until my mandatory retirement date, I plan to come back to LO several times.  I was just here for the Columbus Day weekend, and I used the opportunity to look back at old log books (always a favorite pastime at LO), copy out my log  entries going back to 2014, and contemplate the unexpected paths that my life has taken in just these past four years.

August 15-16, 2014

I arrived at 6pm for just a one night stay at Little Orleans, my favorite PATC cabin.  I was taken aback by the imposing new gate at the road until I realized it was not locked.  I was also surprised by the padlock on the LO gate itself.  Has vandalism become a problem in the area?

The cabin is in the same perfect condition as always.  There have been some good upgrades such as the grill since my last visit.  I rather miss the stars on the ceiling of the sleeping loft, but I imagine re-paining is one of those «musts» through the years.  The kitchen range, which I remember when it was brand new, now looks old.

Yes, I’ve been coming to LO for a long time.  I believe my first visit was around 1996.  I will never forget being here with my son and others from his boy scout troop to stay up all night and watch the Leonid meteors in 1999.  Or was it in 2000?

I had rather hoped to read our log entries from those earlier visits, but I gather the older log books have been removed for safe keeping.  Mine is the first entry, however, in log book 9 from August 22-28, 2007.  Unfortunately, all I write about there is how I cleaned and painted the privy.  (I remember C contacting me afterward to say thank you.)

This may be my last visit to LO.  I work for the State Department Foreign Service and am about to head overseas.  Nearing retirement age, I do not expect to live in the Washington, DC, area again.

LO occupies a special place in my life, and it inspired me to build an LO of my own in the lake region of Maine. (In fact, that’s where I’m headed now on the road less traveled.)  LO has been my retreat, a refuge where I was able to grapple and come to terms with the issues of my life.  I am a much happier and, I hope, a better person for the decisions I made during past visits.  My return for this one night was in joy and in memory of those past visits.  I give great thanks to C and all the overseer family for making Little Orleans the beautiful refuge that it is.

Robyn Ann McCutcheon

PS – Filled hummingbird feeders and put out bird seed.  Borrowed one book, Woodswoman, but will return by mail to PATC.  (FWIW, I'm the one who left the Garrison Keilor tapes some fifteen or so years ago!)

August 19-20, 2016

Never say never.  On August 15-16, 2014, I wrote in log book #10 that “this may be my last visit to LO.”  I was on the eve of a 3-year assignment to Kazakhstan and did not expect to come this way again.

Well, here I am, this time with a young Kazakh friend who is visiting the US for the first time.  I’m on my annual R&R vacation.  We departed Astana early on the 19th, transited through Frankfurt, landed at Dulles, and came straight here.  We’re in LO for just the one night, but what a beautiful way to come home before moving on to the big city.  We just spend the day walking on the towpath and lying on the hammock, resting and enjoying the peace after a day in airplanes.

Only thing to report is that the cabin had a very musty smell when we arrived.  Things improved after we opened all the windows and turned on fans, but a bad smell lingers in the kitchen.  Perhaps there’s a dead mouse underneath?

Onward!  I have one more year left in Kazakhstan.  LO may see me yet again.

Robyn McCutcheon

June 10-13, 2018

To jump right to the practical side of things, I arrived Sunday afternoon to find Little Orleans in as beautiful, immaculate shape as I remember from my first visit some 22 years ago.  BUT:  Something has happened with the water supply.  In both the kitchen and wash room, the water flows only at a trickle at best and 95% of the time not at all.  My suspicion is that the well pump (submersible?) has died.  This must be very recent, as dishes in the dish drainer left by the previous renters were not yet dry, and the dish clothes were still damp.  Given the amount of rain we are having, it can’t be that the well has gone dry.  So much for my hopes for a good shower.  I’m filling every pot and bowl with that water that does sometimes flow from the tap and will be washing dishes (and myself!) as I would on a camping trip.  I’ll call PATC as soon as I leave and have cell reception.

Which brings me to the delight of being here again in LO:  no cell reception and no Internet.  PATC should begin listing these as positive amenities for those of us who come to LO in search of retreat, a place just to be and find peace both in nature and, through nature, in oneself.  On this visit I may not even turn on the recorded music on my phone or the music system in the living room.  Sitting on the porch and listening to the sounds of the birds, insects, and falling rain is sound enough.

If the rain continues – (I write on Monday morning) – sitting on the porch may be all that I do.  I came equipped for biking and day hiking, but the quiet is what I really came for this time.

For anyone who looks back at my log entry from August 2016, I am pleased to say that my young Kazakhstani friend NN has gone far in improving her English, has started graduate school, and may go for a semester of study in Poland this fall.

If you look further back to my log entry from August 2014, you will know I am a Foreign Service Officer with the Department of State.  So why am I at LO on a Monday morning rather than being hard at work in Foggy Bottom?  I’m here to decide if the time has come for me to resign.  I have only a year to go until my mandatory retirement age, but too many circumstances and political changes have piled up.  Even taking a financial hit by leaving early, I may be at greater peace with myself if I go.

And so to J, C (to whom I owe a long-delayed letter), and all the LO overseers, thank you for the love, care, and labor that you put in to make Little Orleans such a special spot where we can be at one with ourselves and find peace

Robyn Ann McCutcheon

PS — Rain over and sunny weather on Tuesday.  Rode bike up Oldtown-Orleans Road to the Lookout.  Had forgotten just how steep the hills are here.

The water situation has improved a bit.  I went to the well and could hear that the pump is working just fine.  The «but» is why.  None of the faucets in the cabin were open.  As an experiment, I turned the pump off at the breaker box (breaker Nos. 8/10) when I left for my bike ride.  When I returned 3-4 hours later, I turned the pump back on.  Eureka, I had good water pressure!  What joy it was to take a shower and wash my hair.  The water didn’t fail again until I was rinsing off.

I have a two part theory.  First, I suspect the previous renters had all taken showers just before leaving.  (The shower area was still wet.)  Second, there may be an underground break in the water line somewhere such that the pump is working even when no water is being used in the cabin.

The moral and the workaround?  CONSERVE WATER.  Believe the signs telling us to conserve.  Second – but pending concurrence from the overseers – turn off the water pump using breakers Nos. 8/10 when going out for the day to allow the well to fill.

With this I end my three page novella.  I have an appointment with the hammock.




Monday, July 9, 2018

Out of the Muck

This could have been titled, "How I Survived my Near Career Death Experience."  Other possibilities include "Finding my Inner Raging Bitch" or "Me Too at State."  

After my experiences at the end of my three years in Kazakhstan, I did not have much fight left in me.  With two years to go until mandatory retirement for age, I chose to return to an office in Washington where I had once served a number of years ago.  To provide some cover, let me call this the Muck Operations Center or MOC, a nod to friends with whom I worked on NASA missions for so many years.  Just as at NASA, this MOC functions 24/7, 365 days a year.   It involves shift work and working on holidays, but it's the type of work that one leaves behind at the office.  It's what I call "good, honest operations work" at a time when a progressive liberal like yours truly is best staying away from policy if only in the interests of preserving one's sanity. 

In this MOC it's the Muck Officers (MO) who do the lion's share of the work.  They are the ones on the line doing the 24/7 muck processing support.  As to me, I returned as Senior Muck Officer (SMO).  When I had served there previously, there had been only one SMO who was nothing more than the first of equals among the Muck Officers.  The SMO did all the same work and pulled all the same rotating shifts.

Things had changed since then.  Now, it turned out, there are two SMOs, both of whom function more as supervisors than as Muck Officers.  I was surprised at the change, but so be it.  All I needed to do was ride out two years.  Surely I could do anything for two years, couldn't I?

After settling back into this office, I came to realize that the SMO position was somewhat superfluous, a buffer between the Muck Officers and the front office management and frequently a mouthpiece for directives coming from management.  It's the Muck Officers who continue to do the real work.

If there was one thing I remembered from my time as a Muck Officer, it was that the work is labor intensive with much repetitive manual processing.  Even then I had put on my IT hat and thought that much of the work was screaming out for automation.  With 25 years behind me as an analyst and programmer on NASA projects, I had a vision for a software design that could save a Muck Officer as much as an hour or more of valuable time during peak shifts.  Just think of it, an entire hour that a human being does not need to be immersed in muck!  Now back as SMO, I decided the time had come to turn that vision into reality.

By December 2017 I had put together design and build plans and had developed a beta version for my own testing.  I held a meeting that included the front office.  I was given the go ahead to proceed.  An external review by State IT personnel would take place sometime in the spring, but in the meantime I had a blessing to deploy the software system to those Muck Officers who were willing to be beta testers.  Between January and April I progressed through several beta releases, updating and distributing documentation at each step, and I had almost all Muck Officers clamoring to be beta testers.  I found myself staying after hours and coming in on non-work days to push the work forward.  I saw this effort as my gift to an office that had been good to me in the past and that had given me a haven at this difficult political time.

But in mid-May I was rudely awakened from this idyllic view.  I had been away for two weeks for medical reasons.  I was working the evening shift on my first day back.  Not surprisingly, my first task was to dig out of two weeks' worth of accumulated e-mails.  At about 8pm I came to the message that changed my life.  It was a "Mandatory Guidance" issued by the other SMO and signed by the front office.  It instructed Muck Officers to return to manual methods pending an investigation of the methods developed by SMO Robyn McCutcheon.

I was stunned.  I searched in vain to see if there had been some attempt to contact me to prior to issuance of this "Mandatory Guidance" or to explain to me afterward why it had been issued.  There was nothing, not a word of explanation to me.  Moreover, the guidance had been issued just two work days before my return.

A suspicion that had been lurking in the back of my head jumped to the foreground.  From the beginning, the other SMO had professed again and again that he did not have time for me to bring him up to speed on the design and development.  He had always averred to being too busy.  "Some other time" was the refrain.  And now he had convinced the front office of the necessity of issuing this "Mandatory Guidance" with no warning to me.

The suspicion crystallized:  I had a colleague who, even in the area of muck, seemed to have issues working with intelligent women.  Isolated instances over the months now strung together in my mind, not all of them involving me directly.

I took my concerns to front office management and was equally stunned by the response.  Within days I was cast as the trouble maker and was being ordered just to do my job, shovel the muck, and not contest the "Mandatory Guidance."  I responded that under the circumstances, I no longer wished to work in the office.  Once voted "Muck Officer of the Year" and recipient of a Meritorious Honor Award for my efficient muck work, I had torn off my smiley face and revealed the inner bitch with whom I was quickly getting in touch.  I opened an EEO case even knowing that proving anything in such circumstances usually goes nowhere.  It's a case of "he said -- she said" in which I would be told by my soon to be erstwhile colleague that there was nothing related to my gender in the crafting and issuing of the "Mandatory Guidance."

So as my front office started talking about disciplinary action, I began writing my letter of resignation from the Foreign Service.  I had wanted to resign last August after the refusal of Sultana's visa and had only stayed at the behest of colleagues and friends and to maximize my pension.  I already knew I had enough to live on if I were to throw in the towel.  Why not?

I almost did.  This is where my hymn to cisgender gay friends begins.  One in particular stopped me.  I followed his good guidance, finding a therapist who supported my application to use Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in order to get out of an increasingly tense office situation and use the time away from the muck to plan my future calmly.  It gave me time to throw out a request to Foreign Service friends in hopes someone might know of an office with an immediate need.  I began interviewing, and in the end, I found such an office that needed someone for a year's tour as quickly as possible.  We shook hands on the deal.

Still, nothing is automatic in the Foreign Service.  To get out of the Muck Operations Center, I had to submit a request that would be reviewed by a "curtailment panel."  Given that I knew my MOC management would oppose, I didn't think the odds were in my favor.  I had my resignation letter written and ready to go just in case, and I made sure the "curtailment panel" knew it.  The panel met two weeks ago, and I was as surprised as anyone when the panel approved my request.  I start working in my new office in mid-July.

So what do I take away from this experience?

First, being taken seriously as an intelligent, capable woman at State is as difficult as being taken seriously as a woman anywhere.  I don't think anyone had even bothered to read the stream of design and user documentation I had been issuing regularly since December.  The only people who cared were the Muck Officers themselves who were the ones with the most to gain.  (I also now look back with gratitude to the many talented women engineers and managers I worked alongside during my years of NASA work.)

Second, after my rape experience on a ferry from Georgia to Ukraine while returning to the US last year (My Journey . . . Home?), I am thin skinned, to put it mildly, when my fate is being decided by men who treat me as though I'm not there.

Third, I may not have the fight left in me to go against an entire bureau that has decided I'm a trouble maker, but I do have the strength to make principled demands and, if they are not met, not to compromise.  In this case I had demanded the rolling back or, with my help, revision of the "Mandatory Guidance."  When it became clear that this was not going to happen, I made the decision to leave.  With help and support from friends and colleagues, I was able to do this without resigning outright.  They know who they are, and they have my deepest thanks.

Finally, living by one's principles does have a price.  In my case it's a month of leave without pay while I was on FMLA.  Also, the position I'm going to comes with a somewhat lower salary, but the salary is lower for a good reason:  no shift work and no more muck!

I regret that the Muck Officers I worked beside will not benefit from the automation I was giving them, but I leave with my dignity intact and hope that I will be an example to other women at State.  There are times one must stand on principle no matter what the career consequences may be.


* * * * * * * *

The ending words from Kiri's Piano written by Canadian singer-songwriter James Keelaghan describe beautifully my feelings at the end of this difficult period:
Kiri knew what I did not that if we must be free,
Then sometimes we must sacrifice to gain our dignity.







Friday, January 26, 2018

A Stranger Among My Own

This post could be subtitled "When the World Doesn't Care."  For those who have become accustomed to upbeat articles from me, this will be an exception.

For the first time in over a decade, I greeted the New Year alone.  Not that I've ever been a party woman on New Year's Eve.  Far from it.  It's usually been a quiet holiday for me, but to spend it alone?  How different this New Year was from the past three when NN and I would wait up, usually watching an old movie, and go out on our balcony to watch the fireworks over Astana at midnight.  Last year BP joined us.  We watched the Truffaut movie version of Fahrenheit 451, taking a break only to view the midnight spectacle explode above the Esil' River, the presidential palace, and the endless white of the steppe.  On New Year's Day we would go out into the park and throw ourselves into the snow, making snow angels in the -20C and sometimes even -40C cold.

I'm not really the type of Foreign Service Officer that the State Department wants.  I went native in Romania, and I went even more so in Kazakhstan.  A year ago I had Sultana, her Mom, and NN living with me, sometimes with the addition of BP or whatever guest stayed late into the night.  Ours was a family.  It was the family I had always dreamed of but could only have after transition.  Although I did my job for the U.S. Embassy and am proud of several of my achievements there, it was family that made Astana special for me.

Sultana's triple visa denial was just as devastating for me as it was to her.  I felt as though my colleagues, the State Department, and my country as a whole had turned against me.  I still feel that way. 

So here I am, back in the US.  Alone, a stranger among my own.  Of course, there are compensations, important ones at that.  I get to see my grown son and my granddaughter whenever I want, not just once a year.  Same goes for my sisters.  I did miss them overseas, and watching my three-year-old granddaughter open her Christmas presents was something I wouldn't have missed for the world.  But this was different from being a head of household, in fact a surrogate Mom or older sister, for my family in Astana.

More generally, I have landed in the country of Trump and Pence, a country where I must fear that my rights are under threat.  Trump's attempt to bar transgender persons from serving in the military was turned back by the courts, but does he even realize that there are transgender diplomats?  I doubt it.  I wonder what would be his reaction if he knew?  Given his low regard for the State Department, perhaps he wouldn't care.  Or would he?

In the aftermath of the election in November 2016, I like many progressives jumped into the fray, writing letters and making phone calls, not to mention increasing my monthly contribution to a number of organizations.  Then Sultana together with her college and visa quest took over only to be followed by disillusion and heartbreak.

I've already written at length about my disillusion with my own colleagues in Astana, most prominently in my article Why Is The U.S. Denying This Young Trans Woman A Student Visa? in the HuffPost.  The Kazakhstani edition of Esquire picked up and printed in Russian the interview I gave about Sultana to journalist Botagoz Omarova, and another Kazakhstani news portal reprinted much of the HuffPost article in Russian.  And of course, I have written in this web journal.

Those articles have changed nothing.  The Embassy in Astana has hidden behind Sections 214(b) and 222(f) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA).  Together, those two sections of the INA can serve as cover for whatever a Consul decides no matter what the basis for the decision.  Being a Consul means exercising great power over the lives of others.  If a Consul is homophobic or transphobic, s/he can incorporate that prejudice into visa decisions without ever having to justify the decision to anyone.  It is my view that the job of Consul could be an excellent choice for a petty tyrant who doesn't have what it takes to become an authoritarian on a larger stage.

No one cares that the decisions in Sultana's case amount to a human rights violation.  Certainly my former colleagues don't care.  No one at the State Department in Washington seems to care either.  When I nearly resigned after the third visa refusal, a few supporters within State urged me to stay, telling me that inside the State Department I have a voice.  I don't.  I can write as many articles and have as many meetings as I like at Main State.  No one cares.  I'm just an upper mid-level officer making noise.  More than that, I'm a woman making noise, a transgender woman at that.

My disillusion extends also to those in the LGBTQI and progressive communities.  The disillusionment began slowly when I realized that there weren't many who were ready to contribute even a small amount to Sultana's tuition crowd funding campaign.  People whom I expected to jump in did not.

That disillusionment deepened after the visa refusals.  Those who I thought would care aren't ready to do more than give a shrug and say that Sultana needs to improve her ties with Kazakhstan to overcome paragraph 214(b) of the INA that puts the onus on visa applicants to prove that they are not intending immigrants. 

Pardon me?  14 out of 15 students accepted by Lane Community College from Kazakhstan received visas and only Sultana did not?  Is anyone going to seriously believe that Sultana alone out of 15 applicants was the only one who did not have good ties to Kazakhstan?  I will say until my dying breath that she was refused because she is transgender.  The only way she could convince consular officers that she has good ties to Kazakhstan would be, somehow, to not be transgender.

When I think of those LGBTQI and progressive allies, I find the song Easy To Be Hard playing in my head.

I have also found that the authority and respect I thought I had earned as the State Department's first openly transgender diplomat and as president of the State Department's LGBT+ association GLIFAA in 2013-14 was an illusion.  The people and organizations I worked with actively in earlier years don't respond when I write about Sultana's plight and the transphobic refusals of her student visa.  Last year I was included in a list of The top 50 successful transgender Americans you should know.  Missing in the title of that list was the word influential.

I have also discovered that the liberal, progressive media I had thought would care about Sultana's case don't care at all.  The use of INA 214(b) and 222(f) as a screen for prejudice doesn't rise to the level of public interest when the person targeted by the prejudice is transgender. 

Perhaps this has all been a needed personal reminder whispered in my ear as in Roman times that glory fades.  What success I had as an activist in the US was limited to one year.  I'm better known today in that capacity in Kazakhstan and Romania than in the US.  It is good to remember, in the end, that I am mortal, just one person no more deserving of respect than any other.

More optimistically, there have been supporters, several of who have asked to remain behind the scenes but who have been there with me at even the hardest moments.  My gratitude and my heart go out to them.  They donated money for Sultana's tuition.  They wrote to senators and representatives on her behalf.  They helped me get the word out to those few mainstream publications that were willing to cover Sultana's plight.  The National Center for Transgender Equality expressed interest, and there have been other words of support from a handful of human rights defenders.

And so I go forward.  I'm still at the State Department.  For what?  Yes, I'm here for the money.  I have a year and a half to go until mandatory retirement at age 65, and the way pensions are computed, I need to stay until the mandatory date if I wish to maximize the pension.  Each day I wonder if this is the day I will throw in the towel, but I tell myself that if I wish to help the family I have known, there is good reason to have that larger pension.  I have found myself a very non-political, operations job in a good office with good people.  In their company, I believe I can go forward.

Or not.  Perhaps this flea one day will bite the elephant too hard, and the elephant will respond in the way an elephant would respond to a flea that bites.  And yet forward I go with the words of Percy's Song ringing in my head:
Bad news, bad news came to me where I sleep
Turn, turn, turn again
Sayin' one of your friends is in trouble deep
Turn, turn to the rain and the wind
A young woman has been denied an education in her own country, and the transphobic decisions of my erstwhile colleagues in Astana are complicit in furthering this violation of human rights.
And I played my guitar through the night to the day
Turn, turn, turn again
And the only tune my guitar could play
Was, "Oh the cruel rain and the wind"
I will continue to fight even if no one listens, no matter the cruel rain and the wind.