Saturday, January 23, 2021
Thursday, November 19, 2020
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|
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|
* * * * * * * *
You can find my day-to-day travel log from this summer's bike-packing adventure in my alternate blog at:
Friday, April 24, 2020
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
|The STOCC at GSFC|
Friday, April 17, 2020
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!
Monday, January 20, 2020
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
Wednesday, October 23, 2019
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.↩