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Yesterday, I read a letter to the editor in my hometown newspaper.  May 5 was Foreign Affairs Day, a day when Americans are asked to honor the people who serve our country overseas.  The letter just reminded people of our commitment to public service and the sacrifices we make.  It was nice.  Then I read the first – and so far only – comment:  “I applaud Rex Tillerson’s call for a 9 percent reduction in force.  The State Department has gotten out of control.”

The State Department has gotten out of control.  Huh.  Okay.  I’m guessing that the commenter doesn’t know a whole heck of a lot about State, so I thought it might be good to demonstrate just how “out of control” we are.

  • Out of control State Department employees like me spend much of our careers living and working overseas, and no – we’re not sipping champagne in Europe.  I mean yes – of course we have embassies and consulates in Europe, but we also have them in other parts of the world that aren’t so nice.
  • And speaking of Europe, many Americans love to travel to Europe and unfortunately, shit happens.  You lost your passport, you pocket was picked, you got sick and needed to be hospitalized, or – heaven forbid – something worse.  Out of control foreign service officers like me are there for you.  We’ll take your call at all hours of the night (believe me, I have); we will print a new passport for you; we will arrange for you to get money if yours was stolen; if you’re destitute, we will find a safe place for you to lay your head until you can get on your flight home; we will go to the hospital to visit you, contact your family, and help you navigate this foreign hospital system.  If you’re the victim of a crime, we will help you report it to the police and stay with you as long as you need us.  If you’re the perpetrator of a crime, we will still be there for you.  We will visit you in jail regularly and make sure you are treated fairly.  We’ll give you a list of attorneys who can help you defend yourself in court.  We’ll be there for you even if you’re guilty.
  • If you’re a bit more adventurous, we’ll be there too.  We will travel eight hours or more over treacherous roads in dangerous territory, putting our own lives at risk, to help secure your release from kidnappers.
  • Hey, you want to expand your business into this new foreign market but you don’t know exactly how to do it?  We can help.  We will put you in contact with reputable business people in your field, set up meetings for you, and help you understand the market.
  • Your kid wants to spend a gap year wandering through South America?  Cool.  We’ve got all kinds of info about every country in the region.  Everything from entry and exit requirements to the political/economic climate to the safety of the airport runways. We can tell you about human rights issues in country; scams you and your kid should be aware of; parts of the country you might want to avoid because of criminal or terrorist activity.  We can tell you about the government, the country’s infrastructure, its medical system, and available social services.

And on and on.  This list is endless.  We can do all this and more because we are there.  Every day.  Away from our friends and families.  We miss birthdays, holidays, baptisms, weddings, and funerals.  I know what you’re thinking:  nobody’s forcing you to have this career.  You’re absolutely right and that’s my point.  We chose this life because we love the U.S.  We make the sacrifices and miss those special milestone events because we believe in public service.

Yeah.  We are so freakin’ out of control.

Fifteen years ago today, I started this crazy adventure called the Foreign Service.  I took an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.  And I’ve done that every day since, in places like Albania, Belize, Italy, Nigeria and Washington, DC.  I don’t regret a minute of it.

So next time you hear someone say the State Department is bloated, out of control, or a waste of U.S. tax dollars, think.  Think of this blog post and the many others out there that are also highlighting the great work of State Department and its foreign and civil service.  Think about our commitment to the United States.  Think about what you would do if we weren’t out there.  And then find a State Department employee and say thanks.

You’re welcome.

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You may have heard:  the U.S. held presidential elections a few months ago, and an inauguration a few days ago.  There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding this one – foreign influence, decisions made by the FBI director, Twitter, the rise of white supremacy,  the electoral college, and on and on.  Folks keep pointing out that the peaceful transfer of power is the bedrock of the American political system.  I agree.  I’ve served in countries where that doesn’t happen.  I celebrate the peaceful transfer of power.  But…

…there’s a monster at the end of this blog post.

I had a dentist appointment on Inauguration Day.  I live in Baltimore.  My dentist’s office is in Arlington.  I really love my dentist.  So I got up early to catch the train from Baltimore to DC, then the Metro from DC to Arlington.  I saw the crowds of people headed to the inauguration – more people than one would normally see boarding a commuter train at 8:30 in the morning, I imagine.  I’m #stillwithher, so I felt pretty much alone on that train surrounded by folks wearing red ball caps made in China.

You should stop reading now.  There’s a monster at the end of this blog post.

This entire election cycle has depressed me.  It seems to me that there was less focus on the issues and more focus on name-calling – from the run-up to the primaries, through the debates, and election day.  That’s not the way it’s supposed to work, but it seems to be what the “American people” want.  At least, that’s the perception.  This election cycle has also been an eye-opener for a lot of people.  People have learned that there is an ugly underbelly in America.  The people who are shocked have likely lived their lives in bubbles that shielded them from things that others have had to face on a regular basis, and they don’t like it.  Welcome to our world.

You’re getting close to the end of this blog post.  There’s a monster there.  Stop reading!

Yesterday, I got up early again to go back to DC.  No, not another dental appointment.  This time I was going to the Women’s March on Washington.  Once again, I headed to Baltimore Penn Station arriving at a few minutes before 7:00.  It was a different scene this time:  hundreds and hundreds of men and women, wearing hats in various shades of pink, carrying signs that expressed their opinions, laughing with each other, talking to strangers, and inching forward – getting closer and closer to that train.  I talked to a few strangers myself:  the older ladies from Connecticut, the young guys from Baltimore, the older man who walked up and down the line thanking us and encouraging us to hang in there.  The line wrapped around Penn Station – there must have been thousands of us!  It was nice to be a part of such a positive force.

Stop!  There’s a monster at the end of this blog post.

After three and a half hours, with no idea of when or if a train would come, my friend and I got out of line.  (Sidebar:  for some reason, MARC did not anticipate the crowds of people who would want to go to Washington that day.  There were only two trains in the morning.)  So we got out of line.  I felt bad about that.  But my new friends from Connecticut pointed out that it didn’t matter if we made it to Washington or not.  The point was, we came out in force.  We were noticed.  We were there in spirit.

That’s how I came to write this blog post.  You’ve reached the end now.  There is a monster.  It’s me.  It’s you.  It’s all of us.  That monster is democracy and it’s unstoppable.  I’ve seen what democracy can do.  It galvanizes people to call their senators and representatives, to challenge the media to dig deeper, to donate their time and money to worthy causes.  Democracy is why we speak up for those who can’t.  It’s why we express our joy and our outrage in response to our elected representatives’ actions.  It’s why at least half a million people showed up in DC yesterday.  Because we the people.  Because democracy.  We are all monsters and when we work together, we can be pretty scary.

 

It’s been a while.  I’d like to say I’ve been too busy living my life to write anything down, but I think the truth is I’ve just been lazy.  So let me catch you up real quick:  I spent the last two years doing consular work in Nigeria.  Here’s how it went down:  nonimmigrant visas, emergency passports, kidnapping, nonimmigrant visas, consular reports of birth abroad, fraud investigations, fake entry/exit stamps (if I can tell it’s fake, it is a really bad fake), meeting our wardens, crisis management exercise, kidnapping, Nigerian elections, VIP visits (hey John Kerry!), training, management “challenges,” outreach on social media, roundtables with journalists, travel to Yola (FYI – there is a surprising connection between my alma mater, Emory University, and the American University of Nigeria in Yola), kidnapping, July 4 celebrations (twice), training, budgets, I’m in charge!, new hires, citizenship renunciations, citizen repatriations, and nonimmigrant visas.  And that one time I yelled at that kid for failing Intro to Pottery.  Oh, also Ghana, Kenya, London, Germany, Egypt, and South Africa.  You’re caught up now.

I wrapped up that assignment in August 2016.  Let me just say to those of you who may have been wondering what life in Africa is like.  Its. Ama. Zing.  I would return to Africa in a heartbeat.  Yes, Nigeria could be crazy and I enjoyed every opportunity I had to get out of the country to relax, but I still loved it.  My friends and colleagues who have worked in Africa will tell you there’s something special and magical about that continent.  If you ever have a chance to go, go.

And I moved to Charm City.  It’s not just The Wire anymore (although my dad and my sister think they saw drug deals going down just a little ways from my house).  Whatever, I’m urban pioneering this shiz.

A lot of good things happened to me in 2016.  I finished a great two-year assignment in Nigeria; before I left, I saw a lot of amazing and beautiful places; I bought a house!  I reconnected with dear friends.  But, for me, 2016 also sucked.  I’m not going to use this space to list all of the crappy stuff that happened this year.  What I am going to do is something I did a few years ago:  I’m pulling out my jar of happy.  Every day, I’m going to fill that jar with one thing that I’m grateful for and at the end of 2017, I’m going to read them all to remind myself of how great life is.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t call out the BS if and when I see it.  And I expect to see a lot of it in 2017.  2017 is a year to engage, to educate ourselves, to be kind, to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves, to protect, to help, to read (or re-read) the U.S. Constitution, to speak truth to power, to do our jobs well, and so much more.

So yeah, I’m back.  You’ll be hearing from me in 2017.

 

This is the second most common question I am asked in Nigeria.  I work in the U.S Embassy’s consular section, so the number one question should be pretty obvious.  But if people don’t know who I am, “is that your hair?” jumps to the top of the list.

I should explain.  A couple of years ago, I decided to go natural.  That’s right:  no hot combs, no relaxers, no chemicals.  I didn’t make this decision lightly.  I loved my straight hair and often received compliments on it.  But a few years ago, I discovered that cancer drugs and relaxers don’t mix.  My hair was breaking.  And since not taking the cancer meds was not an option for me, I decided to drop the relaxers.  I also found out my next overseas assignment would be in Abuja, Nigeria and I thought going natural would be easier in this environment.  I assumed – incorrectly, as it turns out – that most Nigerian women were “natural curlies” too, so I’d have a lot of local resources.  

Truthfully, going natural wasn’t that hard.  Some women will figuratively take the plunge and do a “big chop” – they cut off all of the relaxed hair, leaving a teeny weeny afro of natural hair behind.  I wasn’t that brave, so I transitioned gradually.  I stopped putting the straightening chemicals in my hair and changed my hairstyle to mask the kinky roots and the straight ends.  Once my roots grew out a bit, I started wearing my hair in two-strand twists.  (Look it up).  

At the same time, I did a lot of research about the best products to use on my hair.  I read a lot.  I Googled a lot.  Everyone’s hair is different, so even with the research, it’s trial and error.  How does this product make my hair feel?  Is it shiny or dull?  How does my hair respond to humidity?  Is this conditioner too heavy or not heavy enough?  And on and on.

Anyway, as I noted above, I incorrectly assumed most Nigerian women be natural like me.  Why did I assume that?  I think I was basing that assumption on the number of African braiding salons in the DC area, but it really made no sense.  I arrived in Nigeria and found the same things I found at home:  relaxers, extensions, and weaves.  A few naturals too, but mostly relaxers, extensions, and weaves.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  It just meant that I wasn’t going to have all the local expertise that I thought I would.  

I’m three years into this natural thing, and I love it.  I love trying new styles, I love trying different products, and I love watching my hair grow as it gets healthier.  Sometimes I twist it, sometimes I braid it, and occasionally I blow it out to see how long it has gotten.  I’ve used almond oil, olive oil, coconut milk, and honey on my hair with amazing results, but I’ve also used store-bought conditioners and shampoos.  It just depends on my mood.  Over the years, I’ve figured out what works for me and my hair.

Which brings me back to the title of this post.  I can’t tell you how many times Nigerian women have approached me and asked, “Is that your hair?”  Then we spend a couple of minutes talking about how I style it, what products I use, and how easy it is.  I’m determined to make a few converts.

So, to answer that question:  Yes.  It’s all mine.  And I love it.  

Me – a few months into my natural hair journey

 

Me – a few months ago, rocking a two strand twist out

 
 

Me – a few weeks ago. Full on blowout

 

Ten years ago this month, I embarked on a crazy adventure.

I’d officially been in the Foreign Service for about a year, going through orientation, then consular training and political tradecraft, and finally Albanian language classes.  Albania:  my first overseas assignment.  The adventure was about to begin.

It was a strange time.  My emotions were all over the place.  I was really excited, really looking forward to starting the “real” work of diplomacy.  I was thrilled for my friends and colleagues, who were going to exotic locales and setting out on their own wild adventures.  I was a little sad, too.  Living in DC had been fun.  I made some fantastic friends.  When my sister moved back from Santiago, Chile, she moved here and we shared an apartment.  And I was so scared.  I mean, Albania?!?  What the hell was I thinking?  I distinctly remember saying exactly that to my sister:  what the hell was I thinking?  Let’s think about it:  here I was, a young, single, African American woman heading off to an isolated, former communist country whose leader had closed the borders for decades.  What would I think of them?  What would they think of me?  And why in the hell was I leaving the comforts and conveniences of the United States?

All valid questions.  But my sister reminded me that I knew the answer:  because this was my dream.  I was going to go places and do things that most people never even think about, and of those that do – many find all kinds of reasons for why they can’t.  “You’ll be fine,” she said.  “You’ll have fun.”

She was right.  I was fine.  Still am.  I did have fun.  Still do.  I met some wonderful people – Americans and Albanians – in Albania; I travelled all over that country and around eastern Europe.  I also made a few trips to Turkey, Greece, and Italy.  My sister even came to visit!

Since then I’ve served in Belize, Italy, and Washington, DC.  I’ve learned a lot.  I’ve grown a lot.  I picked up more friends along the way, took a few road trips, and snapped a lot of photos.  Most importantly, I learned less is more when placing my consumables shipment order.

Funny story.  When access to consumer goods is limited in a country, the U.S. government allows you to have a “consumables shipment.”  Basically, you order what you need – food, paper products, cat litter, whatever – from the closest U.S. military commissary or grocery store and the USG ships it to your overseas location.

I waited until after I got to Albania to place my order.  I wanted to see what was available on the local market.  Now, I haven’t placed a consumables order since my first tour so things may have changed by now, but back then, you got a list – an Excel spreadsheet, as I recall – from the commissary, reviewed items available, and placed your order.  I remember that spreadsheet.  It was pages and pages and pages long when I printed it out.  And whoever created it didn’t “wrap” the text in the individual cells, so a lot of the information was cut off.  For example, I ordered several bags of what I thought were plain tortilla chips and ended up with the ones that have a hint of lime.  (I really hate those).

The really funny thing was toilet paper.  You see, toilet paper in Albania was pretty thin.  One-ply.  Everyone included toilet paper in their consumables shipment. So I ordered several cases of toilet paper – what I thought would be enough to get me through my two-year tour.  But because some of the info on that spreadsheet was cut off, I didn’t know how many rolls of toilet paper were in a case.  I ordered blindly.  A few weeks later, my shipment arrived.  Let’s just say that I haven’t bought toilet paper for 10 years.  Not in Albania, not in Belize, not in Italy, and not in Washington, DC.  This is a photo of the last roll in the last pack from the last case of the last carton of toilet paper from that shipment.

The Last Roll

The Last Roll

So, you know – hooray for consumables and the quality paper products made by the fine people at Cottonelle.

“I’m not a role model.”  How many times have you heard that?  Many, many times.  I’m not a HUGE sports fan.  Not like my wonderful father and super-cool sister.  I mean, yes – I played sports in middle school and I love going to Nationals Stadium (just like I loved watching the Braves).  And yeah – I’ll watch college basketball if someone else is watching and I happen to be in the room.  But, unlike some members of my family (see above), I don’t play in a fantasy football league, I don’t know the names or records of any of the players or teams, and my heart would not be broken if my cable package didn’t include ESPN.  (Wait.  Does my cable package include ESPN?  Note to self:  check cable package).

So I’m not a sports aficionado. But one thing I do remember about sports – insert any sport here – back in the day is that these up-and-comers would grab the attention of the media and fans, then they’d say or do something that “let us down.”  And then the superstar would say, “I’m not a role model.”  And I get that.  Dude’s just trying to live his life, deal with the spotlight, and get some time on the court/field/diamond/whatever. I’m not saying that’s an excuse for bad behavior.  I’m just saying I kinda sorta get it.  Stay with me.

The handful of you who are loyal enough to read this blog (love ya!) know that I was diagnosed with breast cancer a while back.  And yes, I know I’m breaking my promise about this not turning into a cancer blog, but I did blog about vacation in July so give me a break!  Anyway.  Breast cancer.  In May I had a bilateral mastectomy.  That kind of sucked.  But I avoided chemotherapy and radiation, so that’s good.  I’m feeling great and I’m just going about my regular (generally boring) business.  I realize that I am very lucky.

Now, this blog is linked to a couple of social networks that I belong to, which means that this blog was how I told most people about my cancer.  It was an easy way for me to process my thoughts and to get it out of the way.  People were very nice and very supportive – and I am really grateful for that.  Really.  But here’s where I circle back to the title of this post:  people have said they admire my positive outlook; that my attitude has been wonderful; that I’m strong.  Thank you.  But don’t let me fool you.  There were days when I was 100 percent negative; my attitude sucked; I wallowed in self-pity.

My point is that I’m human.  I don’t belong on a pedastal.  I’m not a role model.  Just like those guys on the basketball court/football field/baseball diamond.

I did the only thing I knew how to do, the thing that I believe most people would do:  I got up – even when I didn’t feel like it.  I moved forward.  Something shitty happened to me.  I consulted with experts who advised me on how to fix it.  We fixed it.  I moved forward.  Standing still was not an option.  Going back was out of the question.  I just kept moving.  (Does that make me a shark?  Don’t some sharks have to keep moving or they die?  Let’s go with that).

Don’t get me wrong.  I love to hear that I look fantastic, that I’ve got it together, that I’m the comeback kid.

But I’m not a special snowflake.  I’m not a hero.  I’m not a role model.  I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.

Wait, what?

So, let me just cut to the chase: about six weeks ago, I got the shock of my life when I was diagnosed with cancer. Moi? What the what?!? Okay, so after I picked my jaw up off the floor, cried a lot of tears, and experienced a lot of scary thoughts, I tried to look on the bright side.

  1. It was caught super, super early. That’s awesome. I’m not dying. I’m living.
  2. I have really excellent doctors, whom I trust. Trust is so important, I think. I mean, sure – you always want “the best” when you’re dealing with something like this, but wouldn’t it be awful if you didn’t feel confident in “the best?” If you didn’t believe they were being straightforward, they didn’t listen to you, they didn’t answer your questions? Well, I lucked out on that score because my doctors are “the best” AND I trust them.
  3. I believe I now possess the ultimate trump card.  A friend has a bad day at the office?  “Aw, that sucks for you,” I say.  “But guess what?  I have cancer, so shut it.”  I kid.  I would never exploit an illness like that…
  4. Depending on how things go, there may be some awesome wigs in my future.  I was talking to my sister (and potential wig-shopping partner) about this, and we agreed that this might be the ideal time to go platinum.  As in blonde.  I’m digging it.
  5. I’m getting at least a few weeks of rest out of the deal.  Sure, I’ll be at home recuperating from surgery, but this is a “bright side” post, folks.  So picture it:  I’ll be at home, catching all the “Law and Order” reruns I can stand (because you know how much I love that show), and I won’t be expected to “fob in” or look at a Blackberry.  Those of you in the business know how it works when we’re on vacation:  we say we’re “on vacation,” but we are constantly checking email.  It really is an addiction.  So all in all, I’d say this is a pretty sweet set-up.  Sure, I’ll be in pain but that’s why Big Pharma exists.
  6. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  Suddenly, I’m not so replaceable at the office.  (cackle, cackle).  😛
  7. The downtime will allow me to start some new knitting projects.  A definite upside for me, but maybe not for the unsuspecting recipients (victims?) of my craft.  My poor niece.  Her poor mother.
  8. And – most importantly – I see a pink t-shirt in my future.  Those of you who know me have probably heard me say this many times:  I’ll pretty much do anything for a t-shirt.  Run a 5K?  If there’s a t-shirt involved, sure.  Paint over graffiti on Earth Day?  Just hand me my t-shirt first.  Mud wrestle a pig?  Well, no one’s ever asked me to do that, but I would definitely consider it if the t-shirt was super-cool…and free.

So, upon further consideration I’d have to say yeah – there’s definitely a lot of upside here.  And not just for me.  You get an upside too.  Since I’ll be out of circulation for a few weeks (you know – shopping for wigs and such), you won’t have to read my silly musings.

Oh, and one more thing:  I hereby promise not to turn this into a cancer blog.  Nothing wrong with people blogging about their cancer (or other illnesses); it can be therapeutic.  That’s just not what I want to do.  I will definitely get back to commenting on all things metro DC, with a few minor changes.  Going forward, I’ll make sure to make it clear that I visited the Washington Monument…with cancer, or went to the Kennedy Center…with cancer.  I kid, I kid!  Seriously, I’m joking.  I would never do that.  Unless I also happen to be rocking the platinum blonde wig.  And a pink t-shirt.

I think a change of scene is always good.  Especially if the new scene leads to relaxation.  I’m on Day 4 of my week-long vacation on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  As the distance between me and the DC area increased, I could feel the stress decrease.  Ah, bliss.  I’m staying with family in a lovely house on the water in Greenbackville, VA.  I can smell the salt water and feel the salt-laden ocean breeze that comes in from Chincoteague Bay.  On my first morning here, I stepped out onto the deck to find a low layer of fog, which created a bit of an optical illusion.  It seemed like our pier was floating in mid-air.

I’m using this vacation as my week to “get healthy.”  I’ve been biking in the mornings, working out in the pool with my sis, and (mostly) eating right!  I feel so great that I don’t even want to be snarky today!  Sorry folks.  🙂

Do I have to go back?

                            

image

Those of you who grew up in the ’80s will recognize that line.

The conference ended on Friday, but I’m here until Monday so I decided to “move on up” to the W Hotel in downtown San Diego. Ah, bliss!

I’m on the road this week, dear readers, attending a conference in San Diego.

Sometimes I just have to laugh at myself.  There are times when my life could be a sitcom.  After a 5.5 hour flight from Washington, I arrived in San Diego this morning.  I picked up my luggage, jumped into a taxi, and gave my destination to the driver.  We jumped on “the 5.” Isn’t it funny how out here, the interstates are “the something?”  We don’t call it “the 66” or “the 395.”  Those kooky Californians!

Anyway, my taxi driver is speeding down the 5 when he suddenly slams on the brakes.  The freeway was a little backed up and he was a little to focused on zooming me to my destination to notice that the cars had stopped.  We were “this close” to rear-ending the car in front of us!  Well I survived that near-death experience, and was dropped off at my hotel:  the Ramada Conference Center.  In the middle of nowhere.  Here’s where the sitcom starts.

I head to the reception desk and announce my arrival.  It’s about 11:30 AM.  The receptionist (do we call them that?) – er, guest services specialist tells me that my room is not ready; check-in time is at 3PM.  Okay, that’s frustrating, but I can deal.  “Is there a restaurant?”  I ask.  You see, I decided not to by the $8 sandwich on my flight because I figured I’d get room service or something at the hotel.  “The restaurant is closed,” she says.  Ooookay.  Is there someplace close by – fast food, restaurant, whatever?  She points me to the Mobil gas station across the road.  Seriously.  I question her further:  “Is that my only option?”  Yup.  So I leave my bag in the office and schlup over to the Mobil station.  Quite a selection.  I have to tell you that I have never eaten a hot dog or taco or burrito or sandwich from a gas station, and I wasn’t about to start now, so I settled for a Coke and a bag of chips.  And I had an energy bar in my purse.

I schlup back to the hotel to eat.  I’m sitting at an outdoor table and while I’m waiting for my room to become available, I thumb through my conference packet.  I have to chuckle when I read that I’m supposed to be someplace at “3:00PM sharp.”  Not bloody likely if I can’t check in until 3:00PM!

And just when I think my situation can’t get any worse, it starts to rain.  I thought it never rained in southern California.  That’s what Tony! Toni! Tone! said.  What can you do but laugh?

Fortunately for me, the Front Desk notified me that my room was ready, so now I’m warm and safe and dry.  And thank God for free wifi!

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