Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Bucharest Christmas

Summer and fall in Bucharest were brilliant in their sunlit days and blue skies.  From May until December, what precipitation there was fell at night or during the workday.  As little as three weeks ago I was riding my bicycle to and from work.  We were beginning to wonder, where is winter?

Then there was a week of fog.  Everything was shrouded in mist.  Temperatures dropped, and a drizzle turned to light snow.  Winter came, and now it is Christmas Eve.

This is my second Christmas in Bucharest.  A year ago it did not feel like Christmas, embroiled as I was in a legal battle that seemed without end.  I put up no decorations of my own and made no Christmas plans.  Then one day I came home from work, opened my door, and stopped short.  My apartment had been decorated!  There were Christmas wreaths, candles, ornaments, and Merry Christmas signs.  It was all the doing of my Bucharest friend K*, soon to be my best friend and one of the most significant people ever to appear in my life.  Unbeknownst  to me, she had gotten a key to my apartment and had decorated it along with her housekeeper without any hint to me.

A year ago I could never have guessed that this year I would be the happiest I have ever been in my 57 years.  This year I did my own decorating, putting up a small Christmas tree for the first time since joining the Foreign Service.  There are presents received and presents to give under the tree, and I am making the rounds from one buffet or dinner to another.  Santa Claus came to Embassy Bucharest on Friday, and I gave him the biggest of hugs.  This year Santa has given me what I secretly prayed for on Christmas Eve nights 50 years ago:  my womanhood.

I am far, far from the first person to walk this transition road, and much of what I write is familiar or even dull to those who have gone down this path long before me.  Yet for me all the milestones, even the small ones, are bright and new, each a shiny ornament for the season. 

My Childhood Christmas Creche (circa 1962)
One ornament came two weeks ago during the fog when I asked M* for a ride home.  "Of course," she said, "and then we'll go together to the book club." "What book club?" I asked.  She seemed surprised I knew nothing about it.  Later in the day I asked my friend N*, and she too reacted with surprise.  "Well of course you're coming, aren't you?"  With two such insistent requests in one afternoon about a group I had never heard of, I had to go and find out.

Mom and Dad's Christmas Village
It turns out that the International Book Club that has existed in Bucharest for years and years is known more informally as the Ladies Night Out Club.  Fourteen women, many from outside the Embassy and whom I had never met, gathered that evening, each bringing a dinner dish or dessert.  (I happened to have some chicken tetrazzini I had cooked the previous day, so I didn't have to embarrass myself by coming empty handed.)  Over wine and dinner, everyone talked about this month's reading, Galileo's Daughter, before digressing into general conversation about the lot of women then and through all times.  For me it was a magical evening that rivaled the Marine Ball.  "I can't believe I'm really sitting here," I thought as I pinched myself.  I had been accepted and was as much a part of the group as anyone there.

Then there was the Sunday afternoon when N*, who describes herself as a beauty school dropout, taught me the finer points of handling a blow dryer and brushes.  Other Embassy friends have been giving me makeup, hair preparations, and beauty advice.

Earlier this week one of my Embassy girlfriends came up to me and asked where I had bought my boots.  "Mine are worn out, and I love yours!" she said.  Another friend came up to ask where I had bought my skirt suit.  Then there was the handsome man, recently arrived in Bucharest, whom I met at a sweets and chocolate get-together last weekend.  When he heard we would both be part of a group that is going to a Christmas Day buffet, he said, "That's another good reason for me to go!"  I nearly blushed.

Santa has been good to me in smaller, practical things as well.  Much sooner than I expected, I received my new tourist passport this week, and just yesterday I received my new diplomatic ID from the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Indeed, it is a wonderful life.

Bucharest at Christmas reminds me of small town America.  Christmas lights hang over all major streets, and the markets are full of wonderful smells as people rush home with their last minute shopping.  Men carry Christmas trees, and women carry wreaths and holly.
It is a very, very Merry Christmas in Bucharest this year.  To my family and friends and to all who have found their way to these notes, may your Christmas be as merry as mine, full of warmth, love, and happiness.  And to those who find themselves down and hopeless, know that this is how I felt just one year ago.  If that is where you find yourself, may you have your own K* in your life who brings you cheer and hope in spite of yourself.

I'll see you all again in 2012. 

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?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Dinner Conversation -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 1

It was just a dinner conversation.  No, not even that, it was an after-dinner remark.  It was a warm spring evening in 2002, and two friends had come for dinner.  When the time came to leave, Bob stood with me waiting for his spouse, who was saying a long goodbye.

Casually, Bob said, "I signed up for the Foreign Service exam today."

"What's that?" I asked.

"Oh," said Bob, "it's the exam you take to join the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer.  It's free to take, and I try it every year to see if I can pass.  Why don't you take it also?  We'll go together.  You've got nothing to lose."

Laughing, I allowed Bob to walk me over to the computer, and the next thing I knew, I had registered.

Scout Camp, Summer 2002
The exam was not until many months later, and I nearly forgot about it.  Summer came and with it came those things I like best about normal family life, a week at the beach and a week with my son's Boy Scout troop at the Broad Creek Scout Reservation north of Baltimore.  The scoutmaster now knew about my being transgender, but he told me he knew me as a gentle person who loved the troop and had always acted properly.  It was to be my last summer with my son at scout camp, and I treasure the memories of the sounds and smells, the heat of the summer, the practical jokes, the lazy conversations, and the gentle friendship of being far away from urban life.

By autumn all was again not well at home.  The brief honeymoon following my capitulation in March had ended.  I had in effect agreed to unconditional surrender.  Always a second fiddle, I now had almost no say in the decision making.  This was particularly true in financial matters, where our not-too-abundant retirement savings were now to be diverted for another home renovation and addition.  I signed the refinancing documents, put down the pen, looked around, and said quietly to no one in particular, "I've just lost my home."

The notice came in the mail reminding me of the Foreign Service exam that fall.  I wasn't at all sure I would go, but the night before the exam had given rise to a fruitless argument.  As Saturday morning dawned, I thought to myself, "I can stay home and continue the argument, or I can go take this exam."  I got up, got dressed, and drove to Catholic University to join several hundred other, mostly young hopeful exam takers.  When it was over, I drove home, uplifted by the diversion of having put my mind to a task that, upon reflection, had been unexpectedly fun.

I forgot about the exam quickly enough, but I was reminded six weeks letter when I received an envelope from the Department of State with a form letter notifying me I had passed the written exam and was now invited to a full-day oral assessment that would take place in January.

Again I was uncertain I would take the exam.  The written exam had taken place on a weekend, but the oral would be given on a Monday.  That would require me to take a day off from work.  It was only the night before the assessment that I decided to go.

I had no expectation that I would pass the oral exam, but I was intrigued.  How far will this go?  The day consisted of a variety of group and individual exercises conducted by a group of expressionless examiners who took copious notes.  Two dozen of us were being assessed that day.  In the late afternoon we all sat in a common room and were called in by the examiners one by one.  The room was nearly empty when something different happened.  Instead of calling a single name, an examiner called my name and that of one other person.  We followed him into another room where several other examiners were waiting.  The door closed behind us, and suddenly the examiners were all smiles.  Amazingly, two of us out of two dozen had passed.

What happened next was that I was given a conditional offer of employment.  As I read the fine print, I realized I had taken the day off from work for nothing.  The odds of real employment with the State Department were slim and were contingent on medical and security clearances.  "This could drag on for years," I thought, but then I decided there would be nothing wrong with getting a free physical exam.

It was six months later, in the summer of 2003, that I received a letter informing me that my clearances had come through and that my name had been placed on the register of candidates who had been cleared for hiring.  In fact, my scores had put me somewhere in the top ten of those listed on the political register.  "Gee," I thought, "is that significant?"

My Office at CSC
The Call came within days.  I was in my office at CSC.  "Mr. McCutcheon,  could you join the next group of incoming Foreign Service Officers in the orientation class that will start next month?"  It was a Human Resources (HR) representative from the State Department who had called.  I was speechless.  "Mr. McCutcheon?. . ."  After a long pause, I answered quietly, "No."

I must credit the HR officer with an ability to read the feelings behind the words.  "Mr. McCutcheon, is that a real no, or is that an I need to go home and think about this no?"  I said it was the latter, and she said she would call again the next day.

I did not sleep that night.  Almost age 50, I had just been offered a chance to turn my life upside down.  Would I take it?  I loved my work for NASA, and the people I worked with on Hubble were almost more family to me than my real family.  Still, Hubble had been launched thirteen years earlier, and one day the mission would end.  Many of my friends had already left for other projects.  More troubling, CSC no longer seemed interested in NASA contracts, and some of my departed friends now found themselves on contracts that had nothing to do with NASA, science, or engineering.

I consulted a trusted CSC friend.  "Take the State Department offer," she said, "because this company will lay you off one day.  CSC is a business, not a family, no matter how many friends you may have here."

The next day the same HR representative called back.  "Have you thought about it, Mr. McCutcheon?  Will you join us?"  This time I replied, "Yes, but I need time to put my affairs in order."  "When can you start?" she asked.  "Sometime in the first half of 2004" was my answer.  "Good," she replied, "I will call you again in six months."

Last Day at CSC, March 2004
The months passed by, and I got ready both financially and emotionally.  Joining the State Department would mean a significant salary cut for at least the first year, and I had to save extra hard over the next six months to have enough to tide my family through.  After twenty-five years with one company and more than half of that on Hubble Space Telescope, the time had come to say an emotional, tearful goodbye.  My farewell luncheon took place in late March, and in April I bought the suits, ties, white shirts and other business clothes I had never had to wear at CSC.

At the end of April I went by myself to Little Orleans, Maryland, where I rented a small cabin I had come to love through the years.  For a week I took long walks along the C&O Canal, went on bike rides through the hills, and lay on the grass at night, marveling at the Milky Way just as I had as a child.   "What will my future be like?" I wondered.  I was nervous and fearful, sensing more than knowing I had cast my career and family into the unknown.  "What will become of me?  What will become of us?"

Little Orleans Retreat, April 2004
The stars shone brilliantly.  The gentle Maryland night embraced me.  A light breeze rustled through the branches and caressed my face.  Somehow, I thought, this will work.  I got up, went inside, and slept the last full night's sleep I would know for many, many months.