Sunday, December 18, 2011

Looking for George Kennan -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 2

It would take a transgender Foreign Service Officer (FSO) to put the names George Kennan and Jennifer Finney Boylan in the same sentence, but there you have it, another first for the transgender world of diplomacy.  Just as I admire Jenny Boylan, I have idolized George Kennan since college when I first read his books Russia Leaves the War and The Decision to Intervene.  It was through Kennan's writings that I first learned of the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, and it was through Kennan's memoirs that I came to know something of what my new life in the Foreign Service would be like.  Although Kennan was writing of his years as an FSO in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, I was to find that much of what he wrote still applied in the 21st century.
It was with Kennan on my mind that I made my way to the heavy, gray State Department headquarters building -- known simply as Main State  -- on a Monday morning in early June, 2004.  Kennan had been the State Department's leading expert on Russia and the Soviet Union, the original author of what went on to become the U.S. policy of containment during the Cold War.  I was now to follow distantly in his footsteps, as my State Department career was about to begin in EUR/RUS, colloquially known to those who work there as The Russia Desk.

I had already been working for the State Department for six weeks, but this was taken up fully by orientation training.  The orientation class had an official name, but everyone called it A-100, a name that goes back decades to a time when the orientation was held in room A-100 of a building that no longer exists.  Most of those six weeks are a blur, taken up as they were by administrative tasks, language testing, and theoretical instruction that would not find practical application for months or years.  Most importantly, the new FSOs in this class would be informed of their first postings.

What would be my first post?  When I entered the State Department, I was still officially on leave from CSC.  Yes, I had had a farewell luncheon and had said my goodbyes, but in the back of my mind was the thought that if I were assigned to some dark corner of the world that held no interest for me, I could quit then and there in the orientation class.  To my own delighted surprise, however, I was assigned directly to a year as a political officer on The Russia Desk followed by two years in Moscow.  This was exactly what I was hoping for, a chance to use my Russian language and my Russian and Soviet studies background.  It was a dream come true.

It didn't feel like much of a dream, however, in the first days and weeks on the Desk.  I was one of three political officers in a high powered office of about a dozen people with years of State Department experience.  I had gone from being a respected, senior analyst at CSC to being "Hey, you!"  I was the most junior person on the Desk and deservedly so.  I could hardly find my way around the building, let alone navigate politics and policy.  One night during my first week I went home and spent the evening staring at the ceiling, talking to no one and wondering to myself, "What have I done with my life?  Was it like this for Kennan when he was starting out?"

The next day I got up and told myself, "OK, you chose this life.  You can do it no matter how hard and new it is.  You can start over."  I resolved I would not let the bucking bronco throw me, and if it did, I would get up and start again.

It was the most grueling work year of my life.  The pace was frenetic, and there was no predictability.  My portfolio was Russia's external relations with third countries, which ran the gamut from dull and peaceful to a state bordering on hostilities.  My life in particular came to revolve around Russia's relations with Georgia and the worsening situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  I threw myself into understanding the evolving events and applying that understanding to writing informational memorandums, reports, and instruction cables to FSOs in the political office at Embassy Moscow.  I arrived early and stayed late, doing all I could to prove to myself and to others that I could do this job.  When friends at NASA would ask what the new job was like, I would respond that it was like launch support for a mission in which everything that could go wrong regularly did go wrong.  The only difference, I would continue, was that at the State Department there was a new launch every day.

On Saturdays I would head to my old CSC office to complete a number of projects.  My old management was wonderfully kind to me.  Knowing that my salary at the State Department would be significantly lower than my CSC salary, they had arranged for me to continue working hourly.  I did this for almost a year.  Thus I had only one day a week, Sundays, to take care of everything that was not work.

My life was not made any easier at home.  CSC had been an escape from the home situation, and the work was almost always fun.  Now work was hard and exhausting, and the career change had not made me popular at home.  "How can you look at yourself in the mirror?" was a phrase I heard more than once.  That had been true in the literal sense for all my life -- something many transgender people are familiar with -- and hearing it stated brought nothing but pain.

But as the months went by, I found I was no longer a danger to myself and those in near proximity.  Part of it was me, but part of it was the people I worked with.  AG, the senior political officer, was my own age and knew how to balance serious business with humor.  When I would be at my most tense, a look from him, a rolling of the eyes, would be enough to tell me to relax and could even get me laughing.  JK in the economic department became a friend with whom I am still in touch.  Gradually, I became known around the building as the junior officer who had jumped into one of the toughest offices and had shown a depth of knowledge and ability that no one had expected.  After only six months I was shocked to receive a Meritorious Honor Award for my handling of the Russia-external portfolio.  I realized then that not only wasn't I a danger, I could really do this job!  I began to relax and find my own humor in the seriousness, writing an item for our "Daily Activity Report" with the title Pith Helmet Diplomacy based on a statement made by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  I received a mock award for this from a neighboring office with a certificate saying, "Best DAR We Wish We Had Written."  I followed up by buying styrofoam pith helmets for everyone in the office.

Pith Helmet Diplomacy
Did I think of being transgender that year?  If I did, it was only in my dreams.  The new career had allowed me to do what I had done so well so many times in the past:  self-medicate with work.  I was too busy and too exhausted to think of anything beyond the basics of get up, get to work, do the job, get home, eat, and go to bed.  That's the way it was for twelve months.

Then one day I walked out of Main State at lunch time and stopped short.  Spring had come!  The sun was bright and the air was warm.  I walked to the Mall, bought a hot dog, and walked around the Tidal Basin.  The cherry blossoms were in bloom.  Where had the winter gone?

With the coming of the spring, my friends and colleagues on the Desk started telling me to slow down, stop concentrating so much on the job and turn instead to my next task, getting ready to transfer to Moscow.  Before I knew it, only a year after leaving CSC, champagne bottles were opened and I was at another farewell party with jokes, smiles, and words of parting.

As I left Main State that day, I summed up the year to myself.  I had done something most Americans would never contemplate.  I had switched careers at age 50 to a field completely unlike the one I had been in.  I had gone from being senior to being junior and had proved myself all over again.  It had been difficult, but I had risen to the challenge and succeeded.  Life was not preordained to go on as it had.  I had reinvented myself in the world of work.  I had, with effort and determination, changed my life.

If I had been able to do this at work, might I one day be able to do the same in other parts of my life? . . .  No, in the summer of 2005 I was not ready to think about this possibility, but I was getting increasingly excited about the next phase of my life:  Moscow!  I was about to return to Russia, not to visit but to live and work there for two years.  A part of my life that had petered out after years of publishing on Russian history had found a rebirth.  I would continue to follow distantly in the diplomatic footsteps of George Kennan.  What surprises, good and bad, would the next two years bring?

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