Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Laying it Out There

Posted in Generalities, In DC, On the Internet at 8:34 pm by graceandpoise

It’s no secret that I work for a part of the U.S. government that doesn’t tend to get a lot of credit (and does get plenty of criticism).  Particularly around tax season, there is a lot of grumbling that goes on, and the State Department – not to mention the foreign assistance budget – is definitely not immune from being the target of calls for significant cuts in government spending.

With my own friends and family, I can make the case for how teensy a piece of the federal budget is taken up by our foreign affairs and foreign assistance efforts.  However, I’m the first to admit my own efforts don’t go very far.  Enter, the Obama White House’s brilliant idea of a tax receipt.  Now, nobody can claim ignorance about how much of their tax money goes where.  Maybe, just maybe, this will help people gain some perspective and realize that all our budget troubles will not be magically solved if only we just start ignoring the needs of those less fortunate.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Open Letter: Cilantro

Posted in Generalities at 3:43 pm by graceandpoise

Dear Food Makers/Sellers of America,

Please, please, PLEASE warn people when you are going to put cilantro in a dish. Particularly when it doesn’t belong there.

I mean, I have come to expect it if I’m ordering something Mexican, or even Indian or Vietnamese food, and I know to specifically ask for my food without cilantro.  However, if I’m ordering something ostensibly Italian, or meat-and-potatoes style American, I expect it to be cilantro-free. It should be cilantro-free!

If you are trying to be all nouveau-fusion-cuisine by putting cilantro in everything, then you need to tell people so.  You wouldn’t top a burger with liver and onions and assume that everyone will love it so much you don’t even have to mention the liver and onions part on your menu, would you?  Then don’t put a pile of cilantro on top of (or into) my burger/sandwich/soup/wrap/pasta/whatever without mentioning it.  If you choose to go that route, don’t be insulted when I come back to you and say, “Pardon me, but this appears to be covered in cilantro, rendering it completely inedible.”  The liver and onions, at least, would be a whole lot easier to remove from the item.

I’m not asking you to omit cilantro from your menus in a wholesale fashion (though of course I’d be perfectly happy if you did).  I’m just asking you to allow me to make informed choices about what I order for lunch.  Please recognize that for a lot of us, even what you might consider a tiny sprig of cilantro will overpower every single other flavor in a dish with a disgusting chemical/metal/soap flavor.

Maybe it’s a good weight loss tactic.  I doubt many people would overeat if you just did stuff to make all their food taste nasty.  Perhaps you could market that.

Otherwise, please, just tell people when you’re putting cilantro in things.



Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hanguk eumshik; Hanguk-aw

Posted in In DC, Korea at 6:22 pm by graceandpoise

Today I had Korean food for the first time since . . . well, since Korea.  And boy, was it good.

You see, the cafeteria at work is fine and all that, but it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.  One goes there because your stomach is rumbling so much it’s interrupting your important meeting, and you need to put something in it to shut it up.  One does not go there because of any desire to actually eat the food.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not despicable – it’s just not good either.  Maybe that’s what happens when you’ve got just one cafeteria, and it doesn’t really have to compete against anything…

So today, on a whim, I decide to check and see what food trucks might be in the neighborhood.  Some days, this area gets no love, but today I was lucky.  These guys were quite nearly at the front steps of our building!  So of course I HAD to try it out.

I figure, while I’m at it, why not break out my now-very-limited Korean language skills?  So I walk up to the truck and say, “Regular bulgogi hana juseyo.”  Yeah, that surprised ’em.  I was even able to dig up the words for “yes” and “no” when asked if I wanted salad and kimchee.  (Yes, even after four years in Korea and India, I’m still a spice wimp.  That’s okay with me.)  Then, greetings, pleasantries, money, and a carton of food duly exchanged, I’m on my way before they can ask me anything more complicated in Korean.

I slink quietly back to my office with my prize like a lion who knows it’s got a choice piece of gazelle and fears the others will try to steal it.  And I dig in.  Plenty of rice, with savory, warm, comfort-food bulgogi on top, the juices from the bulgogi seeping down, flavoring the rice with their goodness.  Okay, yes, the pieces of meat could have used a little less fat/gristle – but it wouldn’t be “authentic” without that, so it’s forgivable.  And there was a salad with a very zingy dressing – almost too zingy if eaten alone, but a delightful counterbalance to the warm and hearty notes of the bulgogi and rice.  Yum.

Now, if only I could find a place in DC that serves Myongdong kalguksu, my return to Korean favorites would be complete…

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Veteran Diplomat on Words

Posted in Foreign Service Life at 7:38 pm by graceandpoise

Wikileaks recently “revealed” to the world that us State Department types are pretty good writers.  You may have heard about it.

Building on a theme, or perhaps digging down to its roots, I present you with the following article I greatly enjoyed reading recently (yes, many of us are complete language geeks):

Of Mice and Mail, By Dean Acheson, Foreign Service Journal, May 1965

Long ago, when the world was young, the official censor of English usage and prose style in the Department of State was a charming lady with an imposing and elegant coiffure. In those days we were in the old State War, and Navy Building, just west of the White House. Affection for its tiers of pillared balconies and mansard roof and its present mantle of soft dove gray is the touchstone which separates aging Victorian aesthetes from neoclassicists and moderns. We loved, also, its swinging, slatted, saloon-type half doors. They not only provided ventilation before air conditioning and permitted most covenants to be overheard and hence openly arrived at, but their vicious swings into the hall created a sporting hazard for passersby.

The Department was much smaller then. The country had not yet reluctantly donned the imperial purple of world leadership, or acquired a voice heard hourly around the world, or discovered and exchanged culture; nor was it required to cope with the mounting ill will of the objects of its solicitude and generosity. The days when the Department would add to its little nucleus of diplomatists the equivalent of Montgomery Ward, Chautauqua, CBS, and Lincoln Center were still mercifully ahead.

So much smaller was it that at the end of the day the elegantly coiffured chieftainess of the Division of Coordination and Review could and did bring to my office all the important departmental mail, to be read and signed over the title Acting Secretary. We began with a ritual which would have puzzled the uninitiated. She pulled a chair close to the front of my desk and then sat, not on it, but in it – that is, she perched herself crosslegged in the chair. And thereby hangs a tale.

The Undersecretary’s mouse lived in his office fireplace, where for years a wood fire had been laid but never touched, much less lighted. Probably generations of internationally minded mice had grown up within the log structure and gone on to positions in the United Nations. When the long day’s work was ending and the busy office was hushed and the fever of departmental life was over, the mouse would come out. Some atavistic fear or urge, older than time, leads women to slander mice by believing that they harbor a lascivious desire to run up the female leg. Elephants seem to share this fear. At any rate, both are traditionally nervous in the presence of mice.

From her safe haven the chieftainess could observe the mouse without tremors as we tackled the mail. For years she had battled bravely with the bureaucracy and maintained the State Department’s standard of literacy high above that, for instance, of the Department of Agriculture of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. But time had dampened the fire and dulled her cutting edge. She welcomed the help of fresh enthusiasm and a new blade.

We won a few opening and easy victories over phrases with no solid support—villainous expressions like “as regards to,” “acknowledging yours of,” “regretting our delay in,” and so on. Then came our first major attack on a departmental favorite. The target was the use of the verb “to feel” to describe the Department’s cogitating and deciding process. “The Department feels that to adopt the course you urge would not,” et cetera, et cetera. The Department could, I insisted, decide, agree, disagree, approve, disapprove, conclude, and on rare occasions, and vicariously, think, but never feel. It had no feelings. It was incapable of feeling. So the ukase was issued that departmental feeling was out.

The immediacy of our success brought home to us the immensity of our combined power over the written words. When the chieftainess eliminated feeling from every letter no matter by whom written and I signed letters brought to me only by her, the Department simply ceased to feel. Absolute power, Lord Acton wrote, corrupts absolutely. But in our case, it was not so. Moderation was our guide. The tumbrel was filled discriminately. Into it went “implement” and “contact” used as verbs – “the Department must implement the Act of Congress” or “you should contact the Consul General at Antwerp.” These horrors sneezed into the sack. So did “finalize,” “analogize,” and “flexible” when used to modify “approach.” “To trigger” would have done so likewise if anyone had dared use it.

Thus far the natives showed no signs of restlessness under the new order. Indeed, they hardly noticed the increased literacy and clarity of their returning carbon copies. But our pruning knives soon cut deeper into clichés which had taken the place of thought. The first of these was “contraproductive.” What would a congressman think, I asked, when he read, “The course you proposed would, in the Department’s view, prove to be contraproductive”? It would sound to him suspiciously like a veiled reference to birth control.

Once started on this line of thought, we soon added to the proscribed list two other phrases, also likely to suggest undue familiarity with the shady side of sex. These were “abortive attempts” and “emasculating amendments.” “Crippling” amendments were bad enough. Why not, in both cases, switch to “stultifying” for a change?

Even those oddities were put down to no more than reluctance to admit modern ruggedness of speech into official correspondence. But when the guns were turned on “sincere” the murmurs grew. “For proof of Russian sincerity,” someone would write, “we look to deeds not words.” Nothing could have been more misleading or misinformed concerning both the meaning of the word and the nature of the Russians. Under pressure all would agree that Webster relegated to fifth place the letter writer’s belief that “sincere” meant “virtuous.” As its first meaning, Noah put down just what the Russians were: “pure; unmixed; unadulterated; as sincere as milk,” or, one might add, as sincere – that is, unmixed and unadulterated – trouble. He even quoted the eighteenth-century wit, physician, and friend of Pope and Swift, John Arbuthnot, as writing (incomprehensibly), “There is no sincere acid in any animal juice.” That clinched the matter, and “sincere” as an adjectival encomium went on the Index Prohibitorum.

We were tempted to go further and rule out “Sincerely yours,” either as a self-serving declaration that the Department was “unmixed,” which was false on its face, or that, taking a lower meaning, it was “without deceit,” which the body of the letter usually disproved. We preferred “Respectfully yours” for our superiors in the White House and the Capitol, a reserved “Very truly yours” for the citizenry and for foreign VIP’s the stately “With renewed expressions of my highest esteem” (a delightful phrase, since the expressions were never expressed). But “Sincerely yours,” having by usage been deprived of all meaning, was finally adjudged suitable for the departmental use.

Thus we strove mightily at the noble task of returning the Department’s prose to a Jeffersonian level; but we strove against the current. We became obstacles to efficiency. The mail backed up. Congressmen complained of the delay in answering their letters and refused to be assuaged by the superior prose of the answers when they did not come.

When the first symptoms of elephantiasis appeared with our absorption of Colonel Donovan’s Research and Intelligence people and Elmer Davis’ foreign-broadcasting facilities, our doom was sealed. Our evening sessions with the mail became as hopelessly inadequate as Gandhi’s spinning wheel. The revolution of expansion swept our ukases away, and through the ruins the exiled phrases defiantly marched back, contacting, implementing, feeling, contraproducing, aborting, and emasculating in shameless abandon.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

It Simply Has to be Real

Posted in Family, In DC at 6:46 pm by graceandpoise

This is my first Christmas back in the States in quite a while.  And I want to do it right, because I can.

My mom will be coming to visit for about a week, my husband will be here, and my husband’s parents and sister are going to drive down to spend part of Christmas day with us.  Because Christmas is a time to spend with family if at all possible.  We will take my mom to the late church service on Christmas Eve, because that’s what you do.

There will be presents – lots of them.  All wrapped prettily, thank you very much (well, I can’t vouch for the ones my husband will have to wrap on his own – I have a personal rule about not wrapping my own gifts – but most of them will look pretty).  And the presents will be under a tree.  A real tree.  Because that’s the way it’s done.

I haven’t been able to have a real tree for a lot of years.  In Korea, I was away the one weekend they were selling actual trees.  So I bought a fake, silver-tinsel, Charlie Brown kind of thing.  It was convenient, because the lights were already on it.  It sparkled.  And it ended up being pretty useful, because they don’t have noble firs for sale in India.  But I had to beg my family each year to send me Christmas-tree-scented candles.  Even then, it just wasn’t the same.

You know, there are some things that just make a thing what it is.  For me, at Christmastime, it is the combination of glittering lights (whether from the tiny lights on a tree, or reflected off the million golden ornaments in a booth at the Christkindlmarkt, or emanating from the candles set in a homemade advent wreath on my mother’s coffee table) and the unmistakable, inimitable scent of a fir tree.  It is simply not Christmastime without those.  Don’t get me wrong, it can be Christmas without those (December 25th does happen), but not Christmastime.  The magic just isn’t there if those things are missing.

This year, I will have to compromise on having the whole family together, as my brother will be unable to join us.  I will probably end up having to compromise on the food, because my husband wants to “do something different” and his mother shudders at the idea of a real Christmas goose.  But I will not – repeat not – compromise on the tree.  The tree requires no time off and no plane ticket, and is not subject to the need to please others’ tastes.  Thus: no excuses.

When you’ve got the opportunity to do something right, you do it.  So the Christmas tree?  It simply has to be real.  End of story.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Good Trip, Terrible Timing

Posted in Family, Foreign Service Life, Travels at 7:05 pm by graceandpoise

I recently went on a trip out to get an on-the-ground view of the portfolio I now cover.  It was a very good trip, and I’m glad I went.  I just wish the timing had been a little better.  The day before I was supposed to leave, my husband’s long-nagging hamstring injury flared up in a major way, so much so that he was having trouble moving around.  Nevertheless, he insisted I leave on my trip, so we made sure he had ice and food in the house, and off I went.

First, I went via Paris . . .

. . . to Madagascar.

I had a great time there, got to meet some colleagues face-to-face with whom I’d long been talking only via email and phone, and had lots of good meetings that gave me a better perspective on the situation there.  While there, I kept in touch with my husband – spottily – via email.  His injury wasn’t getting any better, the doc had told him to rest it and scheduled him for some tests, and meanwhile he was taking some time off work, feeling lonely, and ordering delivery because it hurt too much to try and actually go anywhere.  I then moved on to Comoros . . .

. . . which I found to be a beautiful – if poor and underdeveloped – place, with people who have hearts of gold.  Similarly to my time in Madagascar, I had a series of interesting and useful meetings, and learned a huge amount about Comoros that I didn’t know before.  However, on my second morning there, the colleague I was with told me at breakfast, “Your husband called the embassy to say he’s going into surgery for his back; he said to call your mom if you want details.”  WHAT?!?  Needless to say, I was immediately a basket-case.

The subsequent call my colleague kindly let me make to my mom revealed that my husband had gone in for an MRI, and they had sent him immediately to a surgeon, who had taken one look at things and found an open operating room right away.  Seems he had a ruptured/bulging disc in his back (thus the “hamstring” pain that had been bugging him since last winter), and the docs were shocked he could move around at all.  I got to talk to my husband later that day, and I told him I was going back to Madagascar to book a flight home.  A back-and-forth ensued, which ended with me capitulating to his insistence that I go forward with the rest of my trip.  So, distraught, worried, and lonely, I went on to Mauritius . . .

. . . which was, true to its reputation, beautiful.  And full of couples, in love.  While I was there alone.  With a husband in a hospital bed on the other side of the world.  Whom I’d have given anything to be there for.  It was beautiful, though, and with a visit there that spanned a weekend, I even managed to get out on a boat once.  Sadly, as far as work was concerned, the Mauritius leg of my trip was considerably less productive than the other legs had been, which only served to make me want all the more to be home with my husband (and to make me feel like all the bigger of a cold-hearted boor for heeding his pleas to continue on with my trip).

All’s well that ends well, though.  When I got home, my husband was happy, and wandering around like a normal person who hadn’t just had back surgery.  Who knew there were surgeries in the world that actually made people feel BETTER instead of worse?  Heaven bless good doctors.  Bottom line:  glad I went, just wish I’d timed it differently.  Nothing can substitute for actually seeing the places/people you are always talking about.  But nothing really substitutes for being there when loved ones need you, either.  Now I just have to figure out how we’re going to afford a mushy, couple-y vacation to the Indian Ocean . . .

Saturday, October 30, 2010

What I Neglected, Part IV: Vegas and Zion

Posted in Family, Travels at 6:51 pm by graceandpoise

Toward the end of Home Leave, we went to visit my brother in Vegas.  It was one of the best trips down there I’ve had yet, because we went out to Utah and did this crazy hike at Zion National Park.  It’s called the Angel’s Landing hike, and it’s supposed to be one of the most difficult day hikes in the U.S. or something.  I have to say, it wasn’t that difficult, but it sure was cool!

I chose to ignore the whole “don’t look down” thing.  That’s a loooonnng, straight drop…

We hiked to the top of that.

Oh yeah – and we weren’t just at Zion…

We really did spend time in Vegas too, but for some reason I tend not to take any photos there (but trust me, we had fun)…

Sunday, October 10, 2010

What I Neglected, Part III: Road Trip

Posted in Family, Home, Travels at 4:04 pm by graceandpoise

My husband and I took a fabulous road trip, up around the Olympic Peninsula, across to Whidbey Island, up to Anacortes, and across to the San Juans.  One week, just the two of us and a hybrid car.

Olympic National Park…

Olympic Peninsula beaches…

Cape Flattery – the sopping wet northwesternmost point…

Lake Crescent…

Port Townsend…

Ferry Rides…

Deception Pass…

San Juan Island…

… aaahhhhhhh.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What I Neglected, Part II: Home

Posted in Family, Home at 7:19 pm by graceandpoise

How could I neglect home, you ask?  Well, I guess in one sense I’ve been doing it for years.  That’s one of the deals we make when we get into this line of work.  But no, really – the answer is: I was lazy.  I realized that, now that I’m back in the States and living a pretty normal life, able to call my loved ones up on the phone and all that, I don’t have a bunch of “isn’t this crazy?” stories to talk about.  So I started saving them up.  And that leads to ridiculously late blog posts sometimes.  So without further ado, earlier this summer, I went home.  It was truly wonderful.










Friday, August 27, 2010

Holy cr@p! Who DOES this?

Posted in Generalities at 5:07 pm by graceandpoise

Now, I’m the first to tell you I would love to have a cute baby tiger or baby panther or something for a pet.  But I’m not really serious.  OF COURSE I’m not really serious.  Because – all concerns of getting mauled 6 months later by your playful friend aside – who DOES this?!?

Poor baby kitty.

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