What We Did in 2009

Espen at George Mason

Espen went off to school this year. It is sad for Chrissy and me not to have him around all the time, although we are happy that he is not far away at George Mason University.    He comes home a lot, but we sometimes don’t see much of him anyway, since we are generally awake during the day while he is sort of nocturnal.  

Experiments in sleeping 

He is trying a sleep experiment over the Christmas break.  His idea is to go to bed a couple hours later and sleep later every day until he moved completely around the clock and can wake up fully rested early in the morning in time to go back to school. It should work. It is much easier to go to bed later than to wake up earlier and I read that this moving around the clock is one way they use to cure insomnia. He has fallen off the discipline recently, however, since he has been going out with his friends.

Studying computers & interning at Lockheed

Espen is studying computer engineering.  He has to take a lot of hard classes, but there is strong job growth for those who make it through.  He had a paid internship at Lockheed-Martin working on their computer systems last summer and will probably get the job back next year.    That will probably be as important to his future prospects as what he learns in school.  They also got him a security clearance, which is very valuable for jobs around here with government and government contractors. 

Alex starts at JMU via NOVA

Alex will be going to James Madison University in January and starting as a junior. His is a real turn-around story. He was an unenthusiastic student and wasn’t ready for college when he graduated HS. It was hard for Chrissy and me not to push him in, but I remembered my own early college experience.  I wasn’t emotionally ready to go and I didn’t study and managed to achieve a 1.67 GPA in my freshman year. Alex found a decent job at Home Depot, which both helped him with his basic discipline and made him see the value of formal education. He started to go to Northern Virginia Community College and eased into higher education part time, soon studying hard and getting good grades.  

Valuable experience at Home Depot

It might have been better for him to wait until fall semester to start at JMU. He has been doing very well at Home Depot, working hard and getting some of the respect and opportunity that comes from doing a good job. I think it would be good for learn some more useful skills. He has been scheduling contractors and working with appliances and fixtures.  This experience is worth a lot in the real world, but I understand that he is impatient to get on with the next steps in his life. I will miss him.  We have been attending Smithsonian lectures together. Unfortunately, I think that has made him even more eager to get to JMU. He is usually by far the youngest person in the audience and he feels life is passing too fast.

Following in my historical footsteps

Alex likes history and that is what he probably will study at JMU. Studying history is not directly applicable to any particular career but it is a great general background for life. My history MA has been as useful as my MBA, although it doesn’t tend to impress hiring managers as much. I think there is a big difference between rigorously studying history and just coasting along.  Alex really tries to understand.

Mariza working at Travelers’

Mariza is still working at Travelers’ Insurance in Baltimore.  She is an insurance adjuster for environmental claim, which means asbestos, mold, oil spills & sewage – all the fun stuff. Most the clients are firms and it is usually third party liability. A lot of these things are subject to interpretation.   Of course most of the claims are legitimate, but she also has to deal with hypochondriacs who probably really believe that they were made sick by various things and predatory lawyers who prey on insurance companies, firms and putative victims alike.

New apartment not far away

She moved to a new apartment last summer, not far from her old one. It is a cheaper and she doesn’t have to share with roommates. Mariza was the de-facto property manager in his former apartment.  It was hard for her to get her sometimes lackadaisical and deadbeat roommates to cough up the cash for rent. The landlord did the old “joint and several” lease, whereby every individual was responsible for the whole rent every month. Mariza’s roommates had a higher tolerance for risking eviction and/or bad credit and that is how she got stuck trying to herd the cats and get them to pay up.

Baltimore has some nice neighborhoods

Baltimore is a very nice city, if a bit uneven in its attractiveness.   There are some very distinctive sections that are almost like towns within the city. Mariza used to live on Bolton Hill, which was an area of nice old building, some being renovated. She lives in Mount Vernon now, dominated by an interesting monument to George Washington. It also has some of the spillover of students from Johns Hopkins University. Nearby, however, are some very gritty and dangerous looking places.  Espen and I drove through one area after dropping Mariza off. We noticed some really little kids just hanging around and it reminded Espen of a Dave Chappelle skit you can watch it at this link if you are not offended by colorful language.

Chrissy doing HR at Department of Labor

Chrissy is doing well at the Department of Labor. She got an award this year and will probably get her promotion next year.   The Civil Service is not like the Foreign Service. Our ranks follow us personally not matter what job we do. The FS system has its disadvantages, but the rank-in-person allows us to take a wide variety of jobs. The all important arbiter in the GS system is the position description. Chrissy spends a lot of her time analyzing and assessing job descriptions. It is, unfortunately, almost impossible to reward well-performing individuals. Managers have to rewrite their job descriptions or move them to new positions. They are not supposed to do that just to reward employees and that is the problem Chrissy often faces. She has to keep them to the rules. 

Mine safety is serious business

Her section deals with mines and mine safety and Chrissy gets to travel around to do job fairs and recruitment.    Given the nature of mining, these fairs tend not to be in the large and sophisticated metro areas.  They have a lot to do in West Virginia and rural Pennsylvania, for example.  The mine inspector program has a diversity problem that upsets some of the leadership.   Given the location of most mines and nature of the industry, people with significant mining experience tend to be white and male.   Also given the life-and-death nature of mine safety, you cannot fake or fudge this experience as you can in many other jobs.    

On top of all that, inspecting mines is a physically difficult and demanding task.  All this means that “achieving diversity” is a daunting task, which is why they do job fairs in places like El Paso and Puerto Rico.

Federal hiring process is confusing 

It is hard to get jobs in the Federal government, hard because of the arcane and Byzantine system they use for most recruitment. They system is designed to be perfectly fair and perfectly transparent, but because it tries to do these thing perfectly in theory it usually means that it is unfair and opaque in practice. It is a frustrating challenge for Chrissy a lot of the time.  But that is a story that she can tell, not me.

Public diplomacy moves to social media

My job had its ups and downs this year, but nothing spectacular. I wrote about some of the public diplomacy we helped do for President Obama’s appearances in Cairo and Ghana. IIP has really become a new media center and my colleagues are developing programs very nicely. I am getting a little concerned, in fact, that the new media is getting a little ahead of our capacity to use it effectively in public diplomacy. In the last couple of weeks, I have had the chance to work with FSI to develop training in social media for decision-makers. We are hoping to make this a policy level course, not just a how-to but a why-do. It is too easy to get beguiled by what we think we can do w/o asking what we are trying to accomplish and what tools are most appropriate. I have appropriated the poetic phrase that we must not let our new media reach exceed our public diplomacy grasp.

Our reach exceeds our grasp

I worry that the ubiquity and easiness of new media will convince us Washington that we can reach overseas and influence far-away audiences with a one-size-fits-all strategy.  We really need the on-the-ground presence and expertise. There is no such thing as a world brand or a strategy that works all over the place.  The strength of our FS is that we can be decentralized and near the “customers,” responding to local cultures and nuances. But this kind of work looks plodding compared to the excitement of the new media. It is tempting to go direct.  We tried to bypass our posts in the 1990s.  In many ways, the dot.com debacle was like the new media craze. We unilaterally dismantled a lot of our networks in the late 1990s and paid the price later. I hope we don’t do that again and I will do my best to prevent it.

Back overseas for me … in 2011

I suppose I do have a dog in that fight. I agreed to go back overseas, back to Brazil.  I will be public affairs officer there with lots of up-close, hands-on opportunities.  I won’t be going until summer of 2011, so there is a lot of time to prepare.  I haven’t keep up much with Brazil, so I have some catching up to do but I am looking forward to it.  My favorite issues relate to economics, environment & Energy and those are the crucial ones in Brazil. I will also be glad to have some line duties again. The Wall Street Journal has a Portuguese version. I have been reading it for the past couple days and can still do it reasonably well. I don’t think it will be too hard to take it up again.

All things considered, not bad

It has been a good year for us, all things considered. Both boys took the next big steps in their lives, but I didn’t see any major turning points and we end this year as we might have expected at the start. Of course, you often don’t see the big changes as they happen.  They are clearly evident only later and when you look back you cannot believe you didn’t know at the time.  Maybe there is something like that. We go into the new year grateful for the blessing of the present and optimistic about the future.