Thursday, November 19, 2020

A Bike-Packing Journey for Our Times

Lake Koocanusa
Tears in my eyes, I had had enough.  On two wheels crossing the upper Midwest, I was nearing the end of my journey.  I had already been up the Road to the Sun in Glacier National Park.  Nothing could be more difficult than that, could it?  Lake Koocanusa in western Montana pulled the mask off my hubris.  The road taking me down its eastern shore was hilly, and a strong canyon-funnelled wind slowed my forward progress to a crawl.  

Six hours into the day's ride, my rear tire flatted.  I never should have left Maine without new tires.  I patched the inner tube but could not find the cause.  Sure enough, the tire went flat again in less than five miles as the sun sank lower.  There I was on the side of the road with the rear wheel off the bike and the tire in my hands.  I squeezed every inch of it to find the cause, the tears in my eyes and the silent "Why?" screaming in my head making the task that much harder. . . .

How many times in my life have I patched bicycle tires on the side of a road?  As readers of this journal know, riding a bicycle and being transgender are intimately related in my life.  If not for the former, I might not have coped with the latter during the decades it took me approach and finally succeed at transition.  I learned to be visible and assertive in my lane position on a bicycle, and those skills transferred directly to being visible and assertive when I transitioned at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, Romania, in 2010-11.  Experiencing two flats in a row that day by Lake Koocanusa reminded me that our life journeys, whether on a bicycle or in asserting gender identity, remain unpredictable even after we have accumulated years of life experience.

Covid and Trump.  It is ironic that without the latter's leadership on the former, I never would have spent the summer of 2020 quite the way I did, on two wheels across 4000 miles of the northern US where Trump flags wave.  

All through the winter of 2019-20, I had planned a cross-country bike-packing journey.  Given that I live in northern Maine, I had designed a route across Ontario and Quebec that crossed back into the US at Michigan.  From there I had planned to cross Michigan's Upper Peninsula and continue across the Northern Tier states to Anacortes, WA.

Then Covid hit.  The world as we know it went away.  The Canadian border closed, and even Adventure Cycling urged its members to stay home for the common public health good.  An unabashed northeast progressive, I complied and abandoned my plans.  Instead, I set out on May 31 to bike only around the state of Maine.  At no point would I be further than a few hundred miles from home.  I told friends this was my Bike Around Maine or BAM, a wry allusion to the Soviet Union's Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad.  I found myself watching YouTube videos of the controversial, tragically naive American folk singer Dean Reed playing his guitar and singing This Train on top of a BAM railroad car in the 1970s. 

That was my reduced plan, but a funny thing happened as I passed through Brunswick, ME.  I met up with a bike-packing friend who urged me to reconsider.  After all, she said, "What could be more socially distant than riding solo on a bicycle 6-8 hours/day and then camping at night?"

I mulled that over for several days as I continued north to the Canadian border that I could not cross.  I wasn't convinced at first, but the more I thought of the Trump administration's leadership in confronting Covid, the more I thought my friend had a point.  Infection rates in the upper Midwest were low as we headed into summer.  I might not be able to cross Canada, but I could strap Woodswoman II on the back of my car, drive to Michigan, and start riding west from there1

If there had been true national Covid leadership in Washington, I would have stayed home for the public good.  With no national policy, however, I understood that the situation would become much worse in the fall and winter.  The summer, on the other hand, still offered a more-or-less virus free route to the West Coast.  I seized my chance.

Crossing the Cascades
So it was that I rode forth from Marine City, MI, on June 24.  Each day I rode 60-80 miles across grassland, prairie, and mountains.  This retired Foreign Service Officer who has seen more of the former Soviet Union than she has of the United States finally got to see her own country.  I had never been in Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, or Washington State.  I rode through rain and heat and battled mosquitoes.  I stayed at cheap motels and at primitive campgrounds where wading into a lake or stream was the only shower available.  I climbed the Road to the Sun and four high mountain passes in the Cascades.

People were kind.  Camp hosts found a spot for me at campgrounds that were full.  One campground host in Montana brought me a home cooked dinner.  A retired Lutheran minister drove over a hundred miles to bring me a new front tire when I needed one. 

In Omak, WA, I took a day off to recover from the heat.  I may have been the only person in that town to tune in to the Democratic National Convention to listen to Joe Biden's acceptance speech.  Only after I had crossed the Cascades did the Trump/Pence flags thin out to be replaced by Biden/Harris 2020 yard signs, a sure sign that I was nearing my journey's end.  I dipped Woodswoman's front wheel into the waters of Puget Sound at Anacortes, WA, on August 25.

Like most progressive Democrats, I had hoped for a crushing repudiation of Trump at the polls on November 3, but I knew better.  I had seen and felt the adulation shown to him through most of the rural northern Midwest and also in my rural part of Maine's 2nd Congressional District.  When the race was called for Joe Biden on November 7, I'm certain I was the only person in my small town to go out on her porch and bang a pot in celebration.  

Come January 20, we will have a national public health policy.  I'll do my part.  If that means staying close to home for another year, so be it.  I long for borders to reopen and to visit friends in Kazakhstan, Romania, Russia, and Uzbekistan.   I look forward to other bike-packing adventures.  In the meantime I will take solitary winter walks, read my books, and enjoy the beauty of a Maine winter.  I will think back on the summer with a smile.

It is ironic that I owe my summer journey to leadership from Trump's Washington.  That irony turns to tragedy when I consider that five people in my circle of friends and family have contracted Covid.  One has died from it.  As memorable as the summer was, I would have preferred true leadership even if meant staying home.  In New Brunswick, less than 100 miles away on the other side of a closed border, the battle against Covid has been so successful that life has returned nearly to normal.

But let me return to that day along Lake Koocanusa.  Getting control of my tears, I found the culprit that had caused my flats, a small piece of wire that had worked its way through the tire wall.  I used eyebrow tweezers to extract it.  A half hour later I pulled into a Corps of Engineering campground south of Koocanusa Dam.  The first person I saw was a woman with her dog standing outside what turned out to be a school bus turned camper.  She invited me to set up my tent next to her bus.  She brought me cloths and a basin of warm water with which to wash away my day's accumulation of grime.  With the sun now set, she invited me into her bus to warm my dinner on her stove, and we whiled the evening away with tales of our travels.  I went to sleep that night with a smile.  My new friend had turned my worst cycling day into one of my best.

Journey's End at Anacortes, WA
That is what I take with me from this summer's adventure.  During three months of contending with physical challenge, heat, wind, mosquitoes, and storms, I had faded the political news into the background.  As different as we may be in our politics, people are kind.  People help each other.  There is still inherent good in this country.  As we head into 2021, may we all reconnect with that goodness.

* * * * * * * *  

You can find my day-to-day travel log from this summer's bike-packing adventure in my alternate blog at:

http://attitude-maneuver.blogspot.com/2020/11/robyns-2020-bikecentennial.html




1 Woodswoman I & II are my affectionate names for my two Rivendell Atlantis touring bikes and also an homage to environmentalist Anne LaBastille.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Hubble's 30th Birthday: A Personal Memory from Ms. FHST

Has it really been 30 years?  I can think of nothing better than to reprint below my 25th anniversary reminiscence published in my companion journal Alice in and out of State in 2015.  
In honor of the day, I'm wearing my Space Turkey T-shirt.  What I failed to mention in my 25th anniversary article is that this was our informal PASS project T-shirt dating from before Hubble's launch.  It was an inside joke in that one of the engineers in our project loved to call out requirements, designs, and anything else that was not up to snuff a turkey.  During the Hubble Trouble period of spherical aberration following launch, we put those T-shirts away for a several years, but a number of them are still carefully preserved, brought out for special days like this.

What a different world we lived in 30 years ago.  It is a tribute to all in the Hubble project that the mission continues to this day.  My own involvement is one of the proudest episodes in my life.



* * * * * * * * * *

30-летие запуска телескопа им. Хаббла:
Воспоминания госпожи астроориентатор



Под этим названием в 2015 былы опубликованы мои воспоминания о том, как я участвовала в запуске телескопа им. Хаббла в 1990.  Не стоит нажать на ссылку.  (
http://esquire.kz/2636-zapiski_diplomata_gospoja_astroorientator_ili_kak_ya_zapuskal)
Увы, статью давно стёрли, и я сама потеряла текст на русском.  Даже в машине WayBack не сохранялась.  Приношу свои извинения, что внизу я перепечатаю только текст на английском.

Есть повод снова опубликовать эти воспоминания:  сегодня, 24ое апреля 2020, мы отмечаем 30-летие запуска.  Фотография показывает, как я надела особенную футболку в честь этого дня.  Футболка Космическая индейка являлась шуточным символом проекта, в котором я работала специалистом по системам ориентации.  Не знаю, сколько таких футболок сохранились до сегодняшнего дня.  Их было не больше нескольких дюжин и тогда, но некоторые из нас их нежно сохраняют и осторожно надевают в круглые даты.  Принимать участие в проекте Хаббл -- один из наилучших этапов в моей 40-летнем карьере. 

* * * * * * * * * *

Hubble's 25th Birthday: A Personal Memory from Ms. FHST

Hubble Space Telescope was launched by the shuttle Discovery (STS-31) on 24 April 1990 at 12:34 UTC.  For those of us who worked on the project, the inside joke that the “Hubble Constant is 2 years until launch” had been broken.  No longer was this a mission that we were working towards but, rather, a mission that was about to become reality.  The question in all our minds was, “Will it work?  Will all the years of hard work and planning pay off?”

I first joined the Hubble project in 1982.  It hadn't even been named for American astronomer Edwin Hubble yet.  That was to come a year later in 1983.  When I started, it was simply ST, Space Telescope.  I was a comparative latecomer to the project.  For those who had been there at the beginning in the 1970s, it had been the Large Space Telescope, the Large being dropped as budgets and the realities of operating a telescope in space began to settle in.  Still, it was to be Big with a capital B, a 2.4-meter optical telescope that would operate above the distorting layers of the Earth's atmosphere.  It would be controlled remotely from a control center at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Maryland with all science planning done at the newly established Space Telescope Science Institute on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  To those of us who worked there, ST ScI would become known simply as the 'tute, truly an internationally-run observatory whose telescope just happened to be in orbit.

My own role on Hubble was a modest one.  I had an MS degree in astronomy with specializations in celestial mechanics and in astrometry, the science of positional astronomy that compiles positions of stars and other celestial objects.  Thus it was no surprise that my first assignment was to work on the attitude determination system that would use data from spacecraft sensors to determine Hubble's pointing to an accuracy of better than an arcsecond.  The name of the project was PASS, an acronym for POCC Applications Software Support, with POCC itself being an acronymn for Payload Operations Control Center.  Our often repeated inside joke was that we had to be an acronym within an acronym in order not to be a somewhat impolite-sounding POCCASS.

Hubble was to be controlled to an accuracy of 3 milli-arcseconds, finer than any pointing control that had been attempted until that time.  It was to be done using data from gyroscopes, sun sensors, and star trackers.  In 1978, on an earlier mission, I had already made my acquaintance with the Fixed Head Star Tracker (FHST).  Hubble was equipped with three of them, and they would be used to update gyro-based attitudes after every spacecraft slew to a new target.  An FHST had a field-of-view (FOV) of 8-deg by 8-deg and could measure a star's position to 20 arcseconds, good enough to go to the next step of determining what stars were in the field-of-view of the telescope's main optics and use them to determine Hubble's pointing to the sub-arcsecond level.  Little did I know when I joined the project that I was to become the most knowledgeable person on FHSTs, eventually becoming known to many as Ms. FHST.


Cutaway Diagram of a Fixed Head Star Tracker

Hubble was scheduled to be launched by the Space Shuttle in October 1986, and we were all under pressure to complete the ground control systems on time.  The pace was frenetic, and from one system audit review to the next, it was becoming clearer that we would not be ready.  But a shuttle launch could not be changed without upsetting all of NASA's mission schedules.  Senior managers began to think that we would launch Hubble and let it sit in safe mode in orbit, a sort of minimum energy cocoon mode, until the ground systems could be finished and tested.

That went out the window on January 28, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73-seconds after launch, killing all on board in the most tragic space accident experienced by the US until that time.  After the tragedy of the loss of all the astronauts on board Challenger had sunk in, we began to realize that our own problem now was not whether we would be ready for a launch in October 1986 but, rather, whether Hubble would be launched at all.  Would the Shuttle ever fly again?  After a few months we were assured that Hubble's launch would take place in 1988.  That launch date soon began to slip, however, leading to our inside joke that we knew the true Hubble Constant[1] to be “two years until launch.”

For me the morning of 24 April 1990 was one of sitting in front of the television and watching the launch and feeling the same thrill I had felt at every launch since the early days of the space program.  This time, however, the thrill was even greater, for Shuttle Discovery was carrying a mission that I had a direct role in.

My own launch excitement in the sense of work, however, began two days later on the morning of April 26.  That afternoon the Canadian-built manipulator arm was to remove Hubble from the shuttle bay and release it into space.  Hubble's systems were being turned on one-by-one and tested before the release.  I had just arrived at my office a short distance from GSFC when a PASS friend and colleague called.  I don't remember his precise words, but they were something like, “Robyn, get out here.  We can't identify what stars the FHSTs are seeing.”  A chill went down my spine.  If Hubble were to be released without the FHSTs being able to identify star patterns, Hubble would be literally lost in space, locked into its cocoon-like safe mode until engineers like me could figure out what had gone wrong.

An hour later I was sitting in front of a terminal in the Space Telescope Operations Control Center (STOCC) at GSFC.   My colleague and friend explained, “We've been trying ever since the FHSTs were turned on, but no matter what we try, the algorithms can't identify the star patterns.”  As calmly as I could, I asked, “Can you get me all the FHST telemetry since the trackers were turned on?  Let's start reprocessing from scratch, taking it step-by-step and paying close attention to detail.”

The STOCC at GSFC
From my experience on an earlier mission, I already knew just how temperamental FHSTs could be.  These were instruments from before the days of charged couple devices (CCDs).  They used simple optics and an image dissector tube, and they could observe only one star at a time.  A controllable magnetic field was used to cause the dissector tube's photomultiplier and photocathode to scan the FOV in a serpentine pattern and lock onto any object brighter than a threshold magnitude for 20 seconds before breaking track and continuing the scan.  FHSTs had been known to track not just stars but the Moon, planets, nebulae, other satellites, space debris, and even bright cities on the Earth's limb.  The trick was to edit out all the junk so that only star tracks remained and then massage those tracks into point images using gyroscope rate data that measured moment-to-moment spacecraft motion.  Finally, these FHST-measured star positions would be passed into a pattern match algorithm that would take the measured positions and compare them with positions in a star catalog.  That pattern match algorithm required fine tuning in order to work reliably.  All-in-all we had just a few hours to get it right before Hubble would be released into orbit on its own.

Slowly, as calmly as we could, we began reprocessing telemetry from the start.  We edited out spurious objects.  We adjusted the editing parameters to get star images with the smallest possible clump size.  As we worked, I became dimly aware of the big screen that hung at the front of the STOCC.  There was Hubble, perched on the manipulator arm, as the solar arrays began to unfurl, unrolling from their containers and glistening like ever-lengthening, golden sails in the bright sun.  Just as the second solar array finished unfurling, we did it.  We identified the stars that were being seen by the FHSTs.  We did some hand calculation sanity checks to make sure we had identified the right stars.  We had.  “Now let's do it again with another data set,” I said. 

Hubble on its Own, Released from the Maniupator Arm

One data set after another, we repeated the process, making further adjustments until we could identify stars correctly without further intervention from us.  The algorithms we had designed were working.  A higher level mission manager approached and asked, “Are we GO with the FHSTs?”  We nodded yes.  Shortly after we watched in real time as Hubble drifted away from the arm and from the shuttle.  We had done our part.  Hubble would not be lost in space.

That was my role 25-years ago.  My day in the STOCC as the solar arrays unfurled is one of those images frozen in my long-term memory.  Hubble didn't have an easy start.  Soon the newspapers were joking about Hubble Trouble when it turned out that the telescope's main mirror had been ground to the wrong figure and suffered from spherical aberration that was giving blurry images.  My FHSTs were not out of the woods yet either.  Another part of PASS, the Mission Scheduling System, was attempting to use the FHSTs in a way they had never been used before by commanding them to lock on to preplanned reference stars after each telescope slew to a new target.  The FHSTs were failing to find the right stars one time out of three, each failure resulting in the loss of science observations for a good part of an orbit.  It was the second largest problem in Hubble's early operations right behind the flawed mirror.

As they say, however, the rest is history.  Once the mirror's spherical aberration was understood, it was possible to grind corrective lenses that were installed by astronauts on the first servicing mission to Hubble in December 1993.  Those corrective lenses were known by the name of COSTAR, Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement, and they silenced the cries of Hubble Trouble, enabling Hubble to give the crisp images that have become part of both our scientific and cultural lives.

For my part, I was brought onto a team whose mandate was to reengineer the Mission Scheduling System.  We were known as MSRE, the Mission Scheduler Re-engineering team.  We pronounced MSRE like ms'ry, and thus our inside gallows humor was “MSRE loves company.”  My part of the mandate was the Pointing Control Subsystem.  Over the next several years, working as a team, we improved the FHST reference star success rate to better than 99%. 

The last effort I had a small hand in before leaving HST and PASS in 2005 was the design of what became known as the Two-Gyro Science Mode that would radically change the pointing control algorithms in a way that had never been attempted before.  A gyro gives information in one dimension, and thus three gyros are needed to know a spacecraft's orientation in three dimensions.  Six gyros were installed on Hubble for redundancy and in the knowledge that gyros are mechanical devices that eventually wear out and fail.  Hubble's gyros began to fail within a few years after launch, but they were replaced during servicing missions.  After the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, however, all future servicing missions to Hubble were canceled.  Of the six gyros on Hubble, three had already failed.  It was only a matter of time before yet another would fail and force Hubble into permanent safe mode, ending its mission of scientific discovery.

The idea behind this last effort on Hubble was to take me back to my FHSTs.  Gyroscopes give rate information, whereas FHSTs give position information.  But could we watch stars as they moved in an FHST FOV?  Could those position measurements be used to compute a rate, effectively allowing the FHSTs to take the place of one of the gyros?  The answer was yes, they could.  The newly designed control algorithms were so successful that NASA shut down the third of the three remaining operational gyros in August 2005, keeping it in reserve and thereby extending Hubble's operational life.  Even after a final servicing mission to Hubble was reinstated and six new gyros were installed in 2009, Two-Gyro Science Mode has remained the primary control algorithm for Hubble.

How long will Hubble continue to provide us with the beautiful photos and ground-breaking science for which it has no equal?  Current estimates are that Hubble will continue to operate at least until 2018, when the next generation James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for launch.  It may continue in operation well beyond that as long as budgets allow and spacecraft systems continue to function.  Not bad for a telescope that was designed and built with 1970s and 80s technology and that many thought would not last for its original projected lifetime of 15 years.

If you're wondering by now how it was that this engineer left the Hubble project to start a diplomatic career with the U.S. State Department, the answer is that even in those days, I had something of a double life.  Outside of my day job on the Hubble project, I was known as a historian of Soviet science.  In the summer after Hubble's launch, I published perhaps my most important history work on Soviet astronomy in 1936-37 during the height of Stalin's Great Purges.  When I left the Hubble project in 2005, in a sense I exchanged my hobby for my career, my career for my hobby.

But on this April 24th, on the 25th anniversary of Hubble's launch, my mind will be back there, reliving the moments of frustration and exhilaration and recalling the faces and names of so many colleagues and friends from the PASS project who were there at the beginning.  And Ms. FHST will smile and feel an inner warmth to know that her children-in-engineering, those three Fixed Head Star Trackers on Hubble, have not missed a beat and continue to guide Hubble on to discoveries that take us back ever further towards the dawn of our Universe.

2014 Reunion Picnic with PASS Friends and Families
 


[1] The actual Hubble Constant is a measure describing the expansion of the Universe.  The current best estimates are in the vicinity of 71 km/s/Mpc, where Mpc is a megaparsec, a distance of approximately 3.3 million light years.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Квартирник -- Evening of Russian Music -- on WERU

Знаю, что есть у меня русскоязычные читатели, и пора время от времени писать хоть несколько строк на русском.  Заранее прошу прощения, если иногда получается неграмотно.  Пользоваться не своим родным языком лучший способ сохранить ясность ума в старости лет.

Провела февраль-март в сочинении своих воспоминаний.  Сейчас редактирую.  То есть, как нельзя лучше провожу время всемирного карантина.  Надеюсь, приведу рукопись в окончательную форму в течение ближайших месяцев.  Раз занимаюсь рукописью, наверно буду редко писать в этом блоге.

В течение молчания с моей стороны, позвольте представить вашему рассмотрению своего рода квартирник на радиостанции WERU в штате Мэн.  Если хотите узнать, какую русскую музыку заслуженная Госдеповская пенсионерка предпочитает, можно слушать на YouTube.

Желаю всем беречь себя в это трудное время!

 * * * * * * * * * *

I know I have a Russian-speaking readership.  It's time I write a few lines from time to time in Russian.  I ask forgiveness in advance for anything ungrammatical.  Using a language other than one's native language is a good way to keep the mind fresh in old age.

I spent February-March writing my reminiscences.  I'm now working on edits.  In other words, I'm spending this time of quarantine in about the best way possible.  I hope to bring the manuscript into final form in the coming months.  While working on the manuscript, I will be writing in this web journal only rarely.

In the course of my silence, I invite you to my evening of Russian music on radio station WERU in Maine.  If you want to find out what kind of Russian music a State Department pensioner prefers, here's your chance.

Everyone be safe in these difficult times!







Monday, January 20, 2020

The Quads of Hope

2020 has come.  It arrived in the usual way on January 1 for most of the world that follows the Gregorian calendar, some 13 days later in the Old Style Julian calendar.  There's no escaping it:  2019 is in the past.  

What 2019 brought us, however, is alive and well with all the continuity of a spline interpolation fit.  The divisions in U.S. society are blooming in this winter as never before, something I now get to experience firsthand as I knock on doors in my conservative district on behalf of Democratic Congressman Jared Golden.  It's winter in America with little sign that our national vision will approach the acuity implied by the year.  Where will we be next November?  I was in Copenhagen when election morning 2016 dawned with the shock of a new reality, a nightmare that has engulfed us ever since.  Will this nightmare ever end?

My personal reality in retirement also has not been the rosy future I expected.  After one of the best month's of my life bike-packing from DC to Maine in September, my retirement was hijacked on October 4 by a legal issue involving my State Department pension.  What at first seemed like a simple, easily corrected error in the computation of my annuity has evolved into a legal morass involving attorneys with no end in sight in the near future.  For now, I am living on two thirds of the retirement income I expected.  That's more than adequate for rural Maine, but all thoughts of traveling back to Romania and Kazakhstan are on hold.  Moreover, October and November were consumed in their entirety by legal paperwork and the necessity of re-living some decidedly negative emotional episodes of my past.

The Quadrantids give me hope.  A meteor shower named for a constellation, Quadrants, that no longer exists on modern star maps, the Quads are elusive.  The peak lasts all of a few hours.  If one is not in the right place at the right time with a good, dark sky, it will be as though the Quads did not happen.  I remember a frigid January night in the 1970s with a friend on Long Island.  We stood in an open field in a park, rubbing our hands together and hopping from one foot to another in a vain attempt to stay warm.  Our hope of seeing even a single Quad proved just as vain. 

The years and decades went by.  I never seemed to find myself in the right place at the right time.  I never saw a Quad.  I thought I never would.

Then 2020 dawned.  The peak for the Quads was predicted for about 3am EST on the morning of January 4.  When I went to bed on the evening of the 3rd, the sky was completely clouded over with a forecast for the same through the 4th.  Another year goes by, I thought, as I turned in for the night.

Heating by wood in a small home in rural Maine saved the day.  I woke in my bed, feeling cold, and went downstairs to throw another log in the stove.  As I did, I noticed the time:  3am.  I looked out my window and with some surprise saw the sky had cleared.  Still in my nightgown, I pulled on a long coat, hat, and tall boots.  I stepped out onto my porch and looked up.  Within a minute I saw my first dim, swift meteor.  Then there was another much brighter one.  I started to count slowly from 1 to 60, my estimate of a minute.  Over 15 minutes I saw 15 meteors streak across the starry blackness of a Maine winter sky, the best count of meteors I have had since watching the Leonid meteor storm of 2001 with my son and friends.  

At a younger age I would have dressed even more warmly and headed out into my snowy field with a sleeping bag and reclining lawn chair.  I remember many a teenage August night in a field in Michigan staying up for hours to watch the annual Perseid shower.  Those days are in my past.  As the cold started to seep through to my skin, I smiled to think that at last, I have seen the Quads.  I went inside and returned to the warmth of my bed with a smile.

These were my Quads of hope, both for my personal, unexpected legal battle and for my country.  The wonder of a shooting star stays with us no matter what our age, who we are, or where we come from.  May that wonder lead us on to a better place.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Guest Blog: Comprehensive Statement for the Liberty of Gentle Peoples

Today I wish to draw attention to the excellent piece written in Quora by Emma Gabriel, a young writer who holds an M.A. in philosophy and rhetoric from Georgia State University.  Comprehensive Statement for the Liberty of Gentle Peoples is, as it's title implies, a plea against violence, a plea for understanding.  I highly recommend it to your consideration.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Three Cheers for the Department!

I have written my share of criticism of the Department of State on various issues, both policy and personal.  State was a second career for me that I began in 2004 after 25+ years in private industry working on NASA mission support.  Throughout my fifteen years at State, I often felt like Alice in Wonderland, marvelling at life in a government bureaucracy, alternately in awe at the good being achieved and aghast at the inefficiency and waste and at policies I disagreed with.  My companion web journal Alice in State has that name for a reason.


The past two weeks, however, give me cause to raise my head in pride.  It began with the appearance of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch before members of the House Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs committees.  I raised my head higher still following the appearance of Deputy Assistant Secretary George P. Kent, but it was yesterday's appearance and opening statement by Embassy Kyiv Chargé d'affaires Bill Taylor that has me yelling "Yes!" and glowing with pride.

Washington Post columnist Dana Millbank described Ambassador Taylor as "straight out of Foggy Bottom central casting."  He's right.  Ambassador Taylor even looks like many of the senior diplomats I have supported as a mid-level Foreign Service Officer (FSO).  The haircut, the suit, the facial expressions, and the gait remind me of ambassadors, consul generals, and any number of Washington-based secretaries.  Perhaps this, much as Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent collar, will become a style statement affirming conscientious professionalism and dedication to service and truth*.

As in any organization, colleagues and supervisors at State run the gamut from the bad to adequate to stellar.  I was lucky during my fifteen years to work largely with the best.  That goes back to the beginning with my year on the Russia Desk (EUR/RUS) as the officer responsible for Russian Federation external relations.  Senior political officer Allen Greenberg kept me sane during that year with his combination of cool professionalism and humor.  I would not have made it through that career transition without his mentoring and support.  He has deservedly made it into the Senior Foreign Service and is now the Acting Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Curacao.

My lucky star placed me under Ambassador Bill Burns at Embassy Moscow in 2005-07.  I was only a 51-year-old, career-changing "Hey you!" junior officer at a large embassy, but Ambassador Burns knew me by name.  I served as his notetaker at a number of meetings, in particualar at Rosatom, and marveled both at his command of Russian and his positive management of a relationship that was entering a time of change.  He went on to become Deputy Secretary of State and, since his departure from State, has gone on to speak truth to power as a critic of the hollowing out of U.S. diplomacy during the Trump administration.

Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) John Beyrle did not lag behind Ambassador Burns by a single step and was just the right choice to become Ambassador in his own right when Ambassador Burns finished his Moscow tour in 2008.  A career FSO with a long history in Russian/Soviet affairs, he was something of a folk hero because of his father Joseph Beyrle.  Interned in a German POW camp that was liberated by the Red Army in 1945, Beyrle's father went on to fight in the Red Army through to the war's end.   That wartime connection meant Ambassador Beyrle could open doors that others couldn't in a Moscow that was increasingly turning away from the US.  President Obama's decision to replace him with Michael McFaul in 2012 ranks up there as one of the most questionable foreign affairs decisions made by a President I generally admire. 

I have a soft spot for Ambassador Dick Norland who had the unenviable task of saving something out of the ruins of the U.S. relationship with Uzbekistan following the cold war that followed the shooting of unarmed civilians by security forces in the Ferghana Valley in 2005.  Embassy Tashkent felt like a ghost ship when I was there in 2008-10.  The Uzbek government forced the Embassy to close all regional offices and refused to grant visas to most senior diplomats.  With only four years in the Foreign Service, I served as acting head of the Political/Economic Office for several months when I arrived in 2008.  I often accompanied Ambassador Norland and his DCM Duane Butcher to high level meetings and on regional travel.  I don't begrudge Ambassador Norland that he sometimes used me as a secretary in the old fashioned sense.  When he learned that I am proficient at touch typing in Russian, he would come to my cubicle and dictate diplomatic correspondence as he thought it through in real time.

Duane Butcher.  I have a special place in my memory and in my heart for Mr. Butcher.  He was my DCM in Tashkent and then again during my 2010-13 tour in Romania.  Ambassador Mark Gitenstein was a political appointee and a good choice to manage the relationship with Romania, but it was Duane Butcher who actually ran Embassy Bucharest.  Moreover, he oversaw my gender transition during my time there, setting just the right leadership tone to ensure that the changes in my life were accepted by both American and local staff.  With less sure leadership, I doubt this first-ever transition-while-serving would have succeeded.

Duane is a Management Cone FSO and is in the Senior Foreign Service, but if ever there was an example of someone who rose through the ranks almost too quickly, it is Duane.  I mean that in the sense that ours is an up-or-out system, and promotion opportunities and choice assignments that lead to them become ever scarcer the higher one rises.  At my FS-02 level, I could go on for a decade without worrying about my next up-or-out promotion, but at Duane's level, that window is much shorter.  Moreover, it is rare for a Management Cone FSO to serve as Ambassador.  DCM is normally about as high as a Management Cone FSO gets.  Thus it was a great joy for those of us who worked with him that Duane got to serve as Chargé d'affaires in Bucharest for over two years after Ambassador Gitenstein's departure.  It is my sincere hope that Duane Butcher will get to serve as a full-fledged Chief of Mission, as Ambassador, before his next promotion window closes.

These were my senior colleagues, and there are others I am equally proud to have served under.  Steeped in the tradition of the Foreign Service as modeled by George Kennan, the leading U.S. diplomat of the 20th century, they faithfully managed diplomatic relationships with foreign states under all Washington administrations that came and went, Democratic as well as Republican.  It was an honor to serve with them, and I know any one of them would follow the courageous examples of the past week and speak up for diplomacy and truth when their country calls.

The mists that shrouded what I sometimes called the Foggiest of Bottoms are lifting.  State has found its voice and is standing up for sane, consistent foreign policy, for diplomacy, and for the truth.

*I must wonder, however, if Ambassador Taylor does not sometimes dress down like some other senior colleagues, substituting a colorful bow tie for the traditional, conservative necktie.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Be Safe Out There?

During my month on two wheels from Washington, DC, to Maine, people I met would again and again wish me, "Be safe!" 

I have written before about the disconnect between living overseas for most of the past fifteen years and the reality of life in the US today.  Things change.  I remember coming home on R&R in 2010 and looking for a Blockbuster store where I could rent a DVD.  My favorite independent DVD store in Takoma Park, MD, had closed its doors.  During my posting in Uzbekistan for more than two years, I had missed the collapse of DVD rentals in the US in favor of on-line streaming.

After coming back from Kazakhstan in 2017, I was telling my sisters a graphic story about an unfortunate incident that had happened to me.  One of them interrupted by saying, "That's TMI."  I asked her to explain what TMI means.  I had never heard the expression used in Central Asia.

Those are trivial examples.  More substantive were the changes in political landscape in the US.  I was at the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen for a conference on the day of the presidential election in 2016.  The results were apparent as our conference got underway.  Stunned silence reigned in the halls of the Embassy.  Several of us went out that evening to drink our sorrows away in a jazz club.  When the Marine Ball took place at Embassy Astana two weeks later, more alcohol was consumed than I had ever seen consumed at an Embassy function.  We all wanted to forget even if only for a moment that our own country had changed in ways we never saw coming.

A month on two wheels as I worked my way through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ontario, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine was the perfect way to let go.  I had no time to follow the news.  Even if I had, for much of the trip I was in areas without cell phone coverage.  Life consisted of me and the road together with the morning and evening routine of breaking and setting up camp.  News was to be heard only faintly from a radio or TV in the cafes and diners where I stopped to eat.

"Be safe out there."  I thought that a strange greeting when I first heard it.  Then it was repeated again and again.  At first I would reply, "Thank you," but later I changed that to "You, too, be safe out there."  On continued thought I changed my reply again to "Be audacious and live fully!"

Have we become a country in which safety is now Concern No. 1?  Given the gun violence of the past several years, perhaps we have.

Still, in my estimate the chance that I will fall victim to a gunman are about the same as being hit by a meteorite or lightning.  Of course it could happen, but am I going to live my life accordingly in a state of fear?

Or perhaps those who saw me, a single grandmother on a bicycle, thought I was doing something inherently dangerous?  As someone who was certified as an instructor by the League of American Bicyclists some 20 years ago, I know the statistics are in my favor.  Hour for hour, the chance of my being seriously injured on a bicycle are about the same as they are if I am behind the wheel of a car.  The point is that one must know how to operate a bicycle as a vehicle with proper lane positioning and communication with other vehicle operators.  Just like skydiving, operating a bicycle requires training.  It is not what most think they remember from riding a bicycle in childhood.

The least of my fears was my safety as a bicycle driver.  Perhaps the "Be safe" wishes were for my physical safety as a single older woman?  That, too, leaves me scratching my head.  Assault and rape do happen in this world.  It has happened to me . . . at the hands of a policeman on a ferry from Georgia to Ukraine.  The risks in my own country seem much lower than in many of the places I have served overseas . . . and I challenge any would-be assailant to keep up with me on two wheels.

Then there is gender transition.  For anyone who has navigated this path successfully, is there anything left in life that rises to the level of danger and fear of what we passed through?  I find there to be a good parallel between successful gender transition and effective, safe bicycle operation.  Be visible, take your lane politely but assertively, and move forward.  It's hugging the shadows during transition, hugging the curb when on a bicycle, that leads to danger and injury.  

Can one be hurt while out and visible?  Can one be killed?  Of course one can.  Just look at the homicide rate for transgender women of color.  Still, I assert that the danger of being hurt while out and visible is far less than when one is hugging the shadows.  

The same applies when operating a bicycle on roads.  I have had no indicdent of any kind as a bicycle driver in Russia, Romania, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.  After those countries, I find conditions in the US to be refreshingly comfortable.

Forward I now go into retirement.  It's too early to know where this new phase will take me.  Whereever I go, I will remember my own greeting to others during my month on the road:

Be audacious and live fully!