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!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Two Wheels Out of State

This web journal has Foreign Service Bicyclist prominently in its title, and thus it should surprise no one that I chose to celebrate my official retirement on August 31 by setting out on my longest bicycle tour to date.  I left Washington, DC, on August 31 and arrived at my retirement home north of Bangor, Maine, on October 2.  It was a journey of just over a month and 2495 km (1560 miles).  

Since it is somewhat off-topic for Transgender in State -- as of today renamed Transgender Out of State -- I have posted the day-by-day journal I kept along the way in my companion journal, Alice Out of State.  It is a chronological account focused on the technical, physical aspects of the journey and may prove useful to others who set out on such a long tour:



If any of my readers are interested in bicycle touring, I look forward to hearing from you!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

July 19, 2019

The Sun is descending over the hills of western Maryland, and I watch from the observation car of the Capitol Limited, bound from Washington, DC, to Chicago.  It is July 19, 2019, and I am celebrating.

It is the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11.  The 19th, as I recall, is when Apollo entered lunar orbit.  The 20th will find me in Chicago, wandering a city I have not been in since 1990.  The hour of the Moon landing will find me ducking into a movie theater to watch the new Apollo 11 documentary.

It's not just the Moon landing anniversary that I am celebrating.  Some time ago I chose July 19, 2019, as the last day of my Foreign Service career.  Even in this 21st century world, we have mandatory retirement for age.  I reach that age in August.  I have had my farewell in our Office of Global Programs; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.  It has been a very good year, a year for which I am indebted to NLL, BL, and UCB.  Without them, I would have resigned a year ago.  IW, an impressively talented young woman, is fully trained and takes over for me on Monday.  My office life, a life that began on the Monday after Thanksgiving in 1978, is over.

Has it really been over forty years?  If this is a life changing moment, it can't be retirement.  It must be high school graduation.  Nixon is still in office, isn't he?  Watergate is only on the horizon, and scarcely anyone outside of Georgia has heard of a certain peanut farmer named Carter.  My life is still ahead of me, a life full of promise but clouded by a secret for which I scarcely had a word in 1972 America.

The choice of watching the sunset from the Capitol Limited on this July 19, 2019, is intentional.  It was after another space first that I watched the sunset from this observation car in August 1990.  Hubble Space Telescope had been launched in April, and I like many on the project had been working all out with launch and early mission support as we struggled to get beyond Hubble trouble.  With that as backdrop, I had applied for and received a one week research fellowship at the University of Illinois to complete my Slavic Review article on the 1936-37 purge of Soviet astronomers, the second career that had consumed my non-Hubble hours for six years, in the process giving me a way to run from myself by being fully occupied all the time.  It was on the train to Chicago that I came to grips for the first time with the reality that I could no longer run from myself.  I had to tell my long-suspecting spouse and my family.  That decision led to the deep, dark valley of a psychiatric ward with many more peaks and valleys to come.


I watched the 1969 Moon landing from the home of my aunt and uncle in Michigan.  It was the space program of the 1960s that led to my first career as an attitude analyst.  It was my inner secret that gave me a lifelong love of Russian literature, culture, and history.  In the days of the Soviet Union, Russian society differed entirely from the one I had grown up in, an other that was as different from U.S. reality as my outer, public face was different from the inner face I kept carefully hidden. 

Watching the 2019 sunset from the Capitol Limited is an entirely joyous experience.  Thanks to that decision taken with such trepidation in 1990, I have made it through.  I have become myself, no longer with inner secrets.  I have had a second career and have traveled and lived in almost all the Russian-speaking world.

A new phase is beginning.  The 1969 Moon landing and high school are both behind me now.  With, I hope, many more sunsets to come, I turn my thoughts to where this next phase may lead.


Harper's Ferry from the Capitol Limited

Saturday, May 25, 2019

A State-less Pride

The guidance came on May 16:  "The Department will not transmit an ALDAC for IDAHOT and LGBTI Pride Month this year."

I think most people reading this journal know that LGBTI stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex.  LGBTI is the official formulation at the Department of State.  IDAHOT, of course, is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia that is observed every year on May 17.  In countries where lgbt+ persons are most subject to discrimination, IDAHOT is often the most important commemoration of the year.

For those who do not regularly walk the halls of Foggy Bottom, let me explain that Department is shorthand for Department of State.  ALDAC stands for All Diplomatic and Consular posts.  Left out of the guidance was the implicitly understood word cable following ALDAC.  All official communication between Washington and embassies and consulates around the world takes place in the form of cables.  A cable is little more than a for-the-record e-mail to which State-specific meta-data have been added, but the Department of State is nothing if not tradition-bound.  What was sent 50 years ago using the world's telegraph network is still called a cable in these 21st century Internet days.

Having parsed the preliminaries, let me get to the meat of the May 16 guidance:  the Department of State will not be sending a cable encouraging U.S. Missions to engage in outreach to lgbt+ communities on IDAHOT or during Pride Month this year.  The guidance continued that despite the lack of a cable, there has been no change in policy.  Posts are expected to use all tools available to them to advocate for the human rights of all persons, members of lgbt+ communities included.  

Why is this significant?  As an FSO who has spent most of the past 15 years at U.S. embassies in Russia, Romania, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, I can attest that cables, especially action cables directing an embassy to do something, receive attention.  General statements that "existing guidance stands" receive much less.  If an embassy or consulate does not have staff with a passion for a particular issue, in the absence of official direction from Washington it is quite likely no action will be taken.

Moreover, a U.S. embassy is not a democracy.  All embassy staff come under Chief of Mission (COM) authority.  That's usually the Ambassador.  In the case of IDAHOT or Pride, even passion on the part of lower-level embassy officers may not be sufficient unless the COM approves.  A case in point, I can point to our commemoration of IDAHOT in Kazakhstan.  In 2016 the Ambassador declined my request to display the Pride flag inside the embassy.  In declining my request, he averred that he could only authorize official flags even though he personally understood the significance of Pride.  Thus we were unable to display the Pride flag in 2016.

Fast forward to 2017.  That winter I contacted the drafters of the annual Pride ALDAC and asked if it would be possible to include a statement in the 2017 cable to the effect that COMs are authorized to display the Pride flag.  They did include such a statement, and in 2017 I renewed my request to the Ambassador, pointing to the ALDAC cable that gives him the authority.  The flag was displayed prominently in the embassy atrium throughout the day on May 17.

So that's why an annual IDAHOT/Pride ALDAC is important.  It empowers lower level officers at U.S. missions to take action even when a COM is not initially enamored of the project.  Without such an ALDAC in 2019, I can only wonder how many initiatives will not come to fruition.

Where did the decision not to send an IDAHOT/Pride cable come from?  I feel certain the staff responsible for writing the annual cable are just as committed to lgbt+ human rights around the globe today as they have always been.  I believe the decision came from higher up, perhaps from the very top.  That would be consistent with what we have been seeing overall since the 2016 election.  Day by day, a death by a thousand cuts, our rights as lgbt+ Americans are being eroded with the removal of a guidance here, the rewriting of a policy there, or just the quiet disappearance of a web site.  It should come as no surprise that this erosion would happen also at the U.S. Department of State.

Happy Pride. . . .

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Overtime

I began my official full-time work career on the Monday after Thanksgiving in 1978.  The week before I had packed my few graduate student possessions in a rented van and, with help from my Mom and Dad, had moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to a group house in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Thanksgiving itself was spent with my oldest sister and her family, and on Monday morning I walked through the doors of 8728 Colesville Road in Silver Spring.  In those days that was the headquarters of Computer Sciences Corporation, System Sciences Division.  CSC, known lovingly by those of us who worked there as Cheap Sciences Corporation, was the major contractor providing orbital and attitude systems support for NASA scientific satellites controlled from Goddard Space Flight Center.  I recall that first disorienting week being in my shared office and computing with pencil and paper just how many days make up a normal work career.  At the time that number seemed to stretch out to such a distant horizon as to be something one should not think about.

On the Monday after Thanksgiving 2018, I celebrated my 40th anniversary in the world of work.  A date that in 1978 seemed impossibly distant had arrived in the proverbial blink of an eye.  I am not retired yet.  That date comes on August 31 of this year year, but with the passage of Thanksgiving 2018, I find myself in a time that I've come to think of as overtime.  With the budding of the trees that is taking place now in April 2019, make that double overtime.  May 1 marks the 15th anniversary of second career as a Foreign Service Officer at the Department of State.

I am struck by both the similarities and difference between 1978 and 2019 and in my Washington lifestyles.  2018-19 have found me again living in a group house just as I did in 1978.  Both then and now it's a way to economize while getting through a bridge period.  In 1978 I was sure I would work for CSC for only 2-3 years, not the 25+ years that I spent there.  Now, in 2019, I know for a fact that I have just over four months left living in DC before taking up my life as a retiree in Maine and a citizen of the world.

Both then and now I have few commitments outside of work.  Family came in the between years, and love my son and granddaughter as much as I do, they are independent of me today.   In 2019 as in 1978, I look to spend my time outside of work with friends and taking advantage of DC's theaters and museums.  The difference is that I have many more friends than did the introverted attitude analyst of 1978.

The 40+ years have gone by in the blink of an eye, but that very number of years gives me weighty pause.  1978 may feel like yesterday, but things have changed dramatically during those years.  One of my first duties at CSC was to be punch card librarian for the attitude system we were building to control Magsat, an Earth resources satellite that launched in 1979 on the fiftieth anniversary of the stock market crash.  Our software ran on an IBM 360-95 computer at GSFC.  If we kicked everyone else off the machine and had it for our sole use, we could revel in 650K of core memory.  When I got my first TSO (time sharing operations) terminal and a 300 baud acoustic modem in 1980, I felt I had entered an entire new age.  Imagine not having to punch cards!  We mere mortals had no concept that the Internet would change our world in just another 15 years.

I have to remind myself when talking with younger colleagues today that they have little concept of my world as it was in 1978.  Cultural references from then are lost on them even as they smile to an older respected colleague.  If someone has started talking to me in 1978 about life in 1938, I would have thought of them as ancient.  After all, 1938 was before World War II.  The Great Depression was still underway and FDR was still in the White House!

I also watch day to day as my past, so to speak, catches up with me.  Several years ago I wrote a small Fortran program (!) on my Linux systems that tells me each time I log in how many days remain until my retirement.  It also tells me what the calendar date was an equivalent number of days in the past.  For every day I get closer to retirement, my past catches up with me by two days.  It's now nearing the end of 2018.

But for all these mind games, I still feel young even if I do have to acknowledge that I had more energy 40+ years ago.  I'm still active and in good health.  Not operating a car for most of the past 15 years either in the US or overseas has helped in that.  Biking and walking are still my main modes of transportation.  When I do retire, I plan on a long bike trip home from DC to Maine.

Career overtime as precursor to the beginning of an entirely new phase in my life.  Let's not call it retirement.  If anything, I feel I am getting ready to graduate from high school all over again.  New adventures wait just over the horizon.


Wednesday, April 3, 2019

An Uzbek Guide to Surviving a Government Shutdown


I have published three Op-Eds in the HuffPost since leaving Kazakhstan.  If you are interested and haven't seen them, here are the links:
I have to give this to the Department of State:  all three Op-Eds were cleared for publication.  Despite my deep disagreement with State and, in particular, Consular policies expressed in two of these Op-Eds, I am proud to work for a Department that has a place for dissenting views.

Alas, my HuffPost chapter ended with the closing of its Opinion section in early February.  I wasn't even aware other than for the silence that greeted my most recent submission as we were still looking at the threat of another U.S. government shutdown.  My final submission is now published instead here. It's a dark humor look at what government workers could learn from their counterparts in Uzbekistan when it comes to learning how to survive a shutdown.  Enjoy.

If anyone has a suggestion for an outlet replacing the HuffPost Opinion section, do let me know!

* * * * * * * *
An Uzbek Guide to Surviving a Government Shutdown

We've been through it, a full month of government shutdown.  A federal worker myself, I was one of the victims, first on unpaid furlough and then called back to unpaid, excepted work before the Trump White House finally caved and re-opened the government.  In my office I've struggled to dig us out of the accumulated work and missed deadlines, and I know I'm not alone in that.  Hanging over us all is the threat that this might happen again, soon at that.

We learned many survival techniques in January, and our helpful Departments and Agencies suggested useful ways we could cope without paychecks.  Yard sales, pawn shops, unemployment compensation, and explanatory letters to creditors together with food banks became part of the mix.  The White House saw no big deal for coddled federal workers who no doubt could make do with less.  In the worst case, rich fathers or uncles could see us through, couldn't they?

This was all well and good, but January showed we are for amateurs when it comes to shutdowns.  Why not learn from other countries that have been through this all before, not just for a month but for years on end?  Why not learn from Uzbekistan?  Government workers there are professionals when it comes to surviving shutdowns.

Uzbeks owe their professional shutdown survival skills to President Islam Karimov.  A former Communist Party Secretary who became President after the Soviet collapse, Karimov espoused a policy of Make Uzbekistan Great Again.  Within a few years most ethnic Russians who could get out did get out as Karimov allowed nationalist passions to ignite.  Uzbekistan was now for the Uzbeks.  Down came the statues of Lenin and Marx, and up went statues of Amir Timur, better known in the West as Tamerlane, the new symbol for Uzbek statehood.  Terrorist bombings by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in 1999 led to a total crackdown on dissent of any type.  Even benches were removed from parks so that people would not linger and, horror, talk about life with friends and neighbors.

Karimov introduced trade barriers that effectively cut Uzbekistan off from the rest of the world.  No McDonalds or Burger Kings here.  The policy was import substitution to encourage Uzbek business and industry even as uncompetitive Soviet industrial towns shut down and came to resemble U.S. rest belt towns.  Uzbekistan even withdrew from the unified Central Asia electric grid to keep all electricity generated within its borders, well, within its borders.

The economic picture for Uzbekistan was nothing but rosy . . . according to official Uzbek government figures.  Any source contradicting those figures was news of the most fake variety.  The GDP was grew at a slow but steady pace, and the world financial crisis of 2009 scarcely touched Uzbekistan.  Karimov’s book The global financial-economic crisis, ways and measures to overcome it in the conditions of Uzbekistan called on the rest of the world to follow the Uzbek example to achieve abundant peace and prosperity.  It was pointless to tell any Uzbek official that of course the Uzbek economy had not collapsed.  How could it when it had never risen off its knees in the first place?

The White House could learn much from the Uzbek example that would allow it to pursue its agenda more effectively, but U.S. federal workers also have much to learn from their Uzbek colleagues.  It was normal for government workers in Uzbekistan not to receive salaries for months on end.  When salaries were paid, it was often in kind.  I have Uzbek friends whose balcony was knee-deep in potatoes, their salary in lieu of cash for a month.  When Russia put high tariffs on auto imports from Uzbekistan, the traffic in Tashkent exploded as government workers were given the chance to soak up the overproduction at next to no cost.  (The Chevrolet Matiz, assembled at a facility in the Fergana Valley, sold for only about $5000 in 2009.)  When the government began paying salaries electronically, employees became used to banks telling them there was no cash on hand when they went to make withdrawals.  When pensioners started receiving their pensions on debit cards, they would stand at registers in high-end stores frequented by foreigners and ask that they be allowed to pay with their debit cards in exchange for cash they could use at the food markets.

Somehow or other, Uzbek workers lived on and even thrived after a fashion.  Barter was the name of the game.  “How many kilos of potatoes are needed to buy that Chevy Matiz?”  The old Soviet model, “You pretend to pay me, and we pretend to work,” continued to apply.  Life happened on the side in spite of a government that was, in effect, shut down for more than 25 years until death came for President-for-life Karimov in 2016.

So take heart, federal workers of America.  Ask your Department or Agency to work out a deal with American farmers who have lost their market in China.  Just think what you could do with a balcony knee-deep in soy!  Snip newspaper coupons and offer your services to private sector employees.  You can reduce their weekly food expenses in exchange for a percentage in cold hard cash.  One day you may be able to buy a car from Detroit that no longer has a market outside U.S. borders.  A month’s salary in American whiskey that is no longer competitive in Europe may ease your pain. 

Through it all, ponder that you are helping to level the playing field for government bureaucracies everywhere through your understanding of the Uzbek experience.  One day, perhaps, we may cast off our chains as we realize there is more uniting than dividing government workers in all countries.  In the meantime, Xo'p mayli.  That’s Uzbek for Good or, sometimes and perhaps more to the point in this context, Whatever. . . .
_________________________________________________________________

Robyn Alice McCutcheon is a Foreign Service Officer who has served in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Romania.  Although Ms. McCutcheon is employed by the U.S. Department of State, the views expressed in this column are strictly her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.
 

Monday, March 25, 2019

Waters of March: Reprise


I sit in my home office in Maine.  As I look at the window, I see the waters of March. They are dripping off my roof, the solar panels, and the trees as a fog rolls in and thickens.  When I arrived home a week ago, deep winter still reigned.  On Monday the temperature bottomed out at -18C, and I could almost feel I was back in Kazakhstan.  But winter comes to an end everywhere. In this part of rural Maine, it's coming to its end this week.  Perhaps there will be another deep freeze or two, but by early April mud season will be in full swing, some 2-3 weeks earlier than it would have been in Astana.

This is a reprise.  Two years ago I wrote Waters of March as my impending departure from Kazakhstan was beginning to feel real.  I had long told friends and adopted family in Astana that as long as there was snow and ice, I wasn't leaving.  As the first days of above freezing temperatures came upon us, I knew my time was growing short.

So it is now.  I have just 24 weeks left until retirement.  I go back to DC on Monday and have those 24 weeks ahead of me, but as temperatures rise and the Maine snows melt, retirement is no longer a distant mirage.


Winter Sunset from my Porch in Maine
The Washington ride of the past 18 months has been rough at times.  I'm a transient in DC, living out of a suitcase with friends who had a guest bedroom for rent.  (At $500/month, I expect I have the cheapest rent of any Foreign Service Officer in Washington.)  Weekends are spent with friends, my sisters, or my son and family.  Every other month I come home to Maine for the feeling of being in my own home and sleeping in my own bed.

As anyone who has read Out of the Muck knows, I am ending my career in an office different from the one where I expected to.  I owe deep thanks to those who got me out of the Muck Operations Center and into an office that is dealing with human rights programs around the world.  I am ephemeral in that office on what is known at State as a 1-year Y tour, but the energy of an office of committed young people is infectious.  My job is the comparatively simple and administrative one of making the bureaucratic wheels turn so that these young people can do their jobs with minimal impediment.  In Kazakhstan and before that in Romania, I have been on the receiving end of some of their human rights grants for lgbtqi+ organizations.  I know the good work that this office is doing even at at time when the administration in power at the White House seems intent on turning back much of the progress we have made on human rights.  It makes me want to do a better than a just adequate job in this final year.  I have fired up the after burners on this 40+ year long career, infected as I am by the enthusiasm of the people around me.

For indeed it has been 40+ years in not one but two careers.  Make that three if you add my years of research and publishing as a historian.  More on that at another time.

For the moment, however, I'll just end as I did two years in Astana.  As the waters of March fall, they remind us of the promise of life in our hearts.




Monday, January 21, 2019

Shutdown but Out in Maine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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