Thursday, April 15, 2010

Update Interlude

Probably won't be much posting for a bit. I'm knee deep in preparing for the move - stage one begins tomorrow while the Mrs. and the little rug rats are out of town for the weekend. I was going to go with them, but thought it offered a great opportunity to move the kids' rooms all at once. My eldest has been pretty funny about the move. She's excited about the new house, but keeps checking to make sure I'll remember to move her bookcase, her toys, and, oh yeah, her bed.

Some good news - the buyers from hell backed down from their crazy, crazy, crazy position, so hopefully we will be mortgage free by the end of the month.

The Mrs. is a fan of Frightened Rabbit, and this tune reminds me of our state of the process towards FS-ness.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The FSOWannabe Housing Market

The Mrs. and I are currently in the process of selling our home in Charlotte. It's a beautiful (if somewhat dated) home in a Mayberry-ish neighborhood near uptown (for those familiar with Charlotte, our house is in Plaza-Midwood close to the Van Landingham). It's somewhat hard to say goodbye to that house. We were married in Charlotte and had our reception at the Van Landingham. It's where we brought our firstborn home from the hospital. We have a lot of great memories there as newlyweds and as new parents. We kept the house when we moved to Atlanta because we thought our time here in the ATL would be a short one with us returning to Charlotte within a year or two. Unfortunately, the tanking of the economy had an adverse effect on a lot of business plans (not just ours).

But sadly, keeping an extra home and dealing with renters was (A) a pain and (B) bleeding us bit by bit financially. And we're realists (at least when it comes to finance). It's pretty clear that Charlotte, more so than other parts of the country, has been particularly hard hit by the economy (official unemployment in Charlotte is close to 13% - God knows how bad it really is). There are entire neighborhoods in the suburbs that are now bank-owned because everyone was foreclosed on. Our neighborhood, which isn't that big a neighborhood, had over 90 homes on the market with a 12% under contract rate in January (no idea what the actual sale rate was). So we interviewed a lot of realtors, seriously assessed the housing market in Charlotte (two word summary - it sucks) and put the house on the market at a painful price. Three days later, we got an offer.

So now we're dealing with the buyers and I can't tell if they are naive or just jerks. We really gave them a good price on the house, but they are trying to nickel and dime us on crazy repairs. And I mean crazy. We have a kitchen island and apparently it has a wobble (news to us - it didn't wobble when we lived there - thanks sucky tenants). We've offered to fix it, but no, that would be too sensible. They want a new island. Their inspector found old raccoon poo on the roof. They want us to hire animal control to hunt down and trap the offending animal. Really. There are 5 places on the entire house where there is some wood rot. None of it is bigger than 2 inches in diameter. They want it repaired and...wait for it...a $3000 credit for new paint.

We've tried to ask their agent to control his clients. But apparently he's given up on talking reason to them. He just forwards their requests, I guess because he's embarrassed by them.

We've been more than reasonable. And the sad thing is, if we didn't want to sell the house so badly, we could be very, very, very good at being unreasonable back.* But enough is enough. So we told the buyers that we were tired of their crazy and they needed to find another house to buy. Hopefully, they'll crumble on their stupidity, quit wasting our time, buy the dang house and be happy that they are getting a great deal.

*Mrs. FSOWannabe has done a very good job at restraining my more vicious tendencies with respect to negotiating - I know, I'm all nice on the bloggity-blog, but I was a finance attorney for a decade and old habits die hard.


My second favorite Japanese expression*, as many of my friends can tiredly confirm, is 七転び八起き (nanakorobi yaoki), which I prefer to loosely translate as Fall Down Twice, Get Up Thrice - the rhyming sounds better to my ears than the actual translation, which is fall down seven times, but get up eight times. I think this is a great proverb for the long, hard slog to joining the Foreign Service.

Following the yahoo boards can be great for insight into the FS life, advice on taking the tests, and especially for navigating the ins and outs of the process. But it's also a place where you will read about people's heartbreaks and disappointments after they fail to pass the FSOT, PNQ, OA, clearances, final adjudication or the register. Mrs. FSOWannabe didn't get through the PNQ's last year. I have an acquaintance that failed the OA twice (and received a lower score on the second go-round). And then there are, like the FSOWannabes, other couples that are hoping to pass the OA and get into the Foreign Service together. Some are successful, and some are not. I am truly sad for everyone that goes through this process only to be set back at some stage. I'm particularly sympathetic to those that fail and have no explanation for why (I'm looking at you, QEP and OA evaluators).

I sincerely believe that the tragic flaw in most people, including myself, is the willingness to give up or settle on your dreams. As I get older, I'm increasingly aware that life is too short to settle for 'almost' or 'not quite' anymore (Hello, mid-life crisis!). So if you want something bad enough you need to keep trying. Pick yourself off the ground, brush off the disappointment, and re-orient yourself back toward the goal. There's nothing wrong with failing, but I think it's a tragedy when you give up on a dream.
* The first is 秋茄子は嫁に食わすな (Akinasu wa yome ni kuwasuna), which translates as "Don't let your daughter-in-law eat your autumn eggplants. " You don't really need to know what it refers to to realize that's just hilarious all on its own.

More Bad Border News

Someone threw an explosive device into the consulate grounds in Nuevo Laredo. Thankfully, other than some minor property damage, no one was injured. More info here.

Just a coincidental, random act of terror, or is it somehow related to the murders of consulate workers in Juarez last month?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Titus Interlude

Language Proficiency and the Foreign Service

For those interested in federal agency news, the Washington Post's Fed Page is a great resource. The other day Joe Davidson had an interesting opinion piece on a speech by John Negroponte regarding the challenges that the Foreign Service faces.

Unsurprising, since it seems to be a consistent criticism, the main challenge according to Negroponte is "the need for officers who can speak the languages of the world." As anyone who has spent even a little time trying to learn a language, it's a challenge to rewire your brain, not to mention the part about learning new words, grammatical constructions, and alphabets (or not so much alphabets with certain non-phonetic written languages - I'm looking at you Japanese and Chinese!).

But I wonder how big a problem this is. It's not like there isn't a Foreign Service Institute, which has a specific goal of training FSO's in whatever languages are needed. And I imagine most FSO's are pretty thrilled about learning new languages. If language acquisition and fluency is a problem in the FS, a key portion of the article explains why: "Another challenge is the widely held perception among Foreign Service officers that State's promotion system does not consider time spent in language training when evaluating officers for promotion, which may discourage officers from investing the time required to achieve proficiency in certain languages," the report said. Although HR officials dispute this perception, the department has not conducted a statistically significant assessment of the impact of language training on promotions."

Not to be blunt, but if this is a valid criticism, then the State Department would need to really commit to the additional expense and time necessary for appropriate training. Any FSO's out there have any thoughts on this?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

DNC'ing It?

So as a complete surprise, I am now on the Economic Affairs track register. As of this week, I was told by my DOS contact that I'm #32 out of 69 or so people on the list. That means I could get called soon. Real soon. Assuming everyone in front of me is not DNC-ing (DNC= Do Not Call), I could get an offer as soon as June/July for the August A-100. That's a heck of a lot sooner than I thought it would be.

After I passed the OA, I received my very first ever un-prompted email from my in-laws asking about when I might get a real offer. Sadly, not a congratulatory email as much as a how-soon-are-you-going-to-take-our-daughter-and-granddaughters-away-from-us-you-selfish-bastard email. Guesstimating on how things were at the time, I honestly thought it was a safe assumption that December of this year would be the earliest I could get called up. Apparently, the combination of my more boring than expected life with a more-efficient than expected DSS process resulted in my happy placement on the register.

But now, to paraphrase the greatest television show ever*, this is when the FSOWannabes stop being polite, and start getting real. As readers of this blog know, Mrs. FSOWannabe is supportive, but extremely conflicted with giving up her own career in this process, as well as what FS life will entail for her and the kids. She always regretted not spending time abroad, but now that it's literally within reach, it's a bit scary (and to be fair, her idea of living abroad was a year in Europe as a student, not living somewhere with a 30% differential and all the attendant issues that come with that).

And as helpful and supportive as all the FSOs, EFMs, trailing spouses/partners, MOHers have been in describing how life can be for a trailing spouse, it is not something Mrs. FSOWannabe is prepared to be. I fell in love with her ornery, feisty, red-headed drive to be the best, so her reluctance to give up her law gig is understandable and I can't say this is unexpected (and to be fair, she can't say that this situation is unexpected for her, either, since this has been something I've dreamed and thought about since my college days). Not that this is an immovable object/irresistible force situation - we're both lawyers after all, so we negotiate.

For now, the Mrs. and I are signing up for the June FSOT to see if we can be a tandem couple (and for me to open another career track to expand my options/timing). I have every confidence she'll pass. And then we'll see if she can get past the dreaded QEP (which held her up last June). In the interim, I'm seriously contemplating being a DNC until the end of this year in order to (1) see how the tandem thing goes, (2) give the in-laws some more adjustment time and (3) take care of some professional goals of my own. It's a gamble. State's budget could get curtailed. Other cones have been swamped with candidates so by the time December comes by I could be way back on the register. Even worse, Mrs. FSOWannabe could definitively decide that the FS life is not for her.

But I'm an optimist by nature. So let's see what happens.

*Not really. Everyone knows the greatest TV show ever was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Pollen Pain

Picture courtesy of Brooke Novak

So Atlanta just got destroyed by a tsunami of pollen this week. A "high" pollen count, so the radio tells me, is 120. Yesterday, the pollen count hit 5533. I think something must be wrong with that information, but my best friend Google isn't giving me any answers (and everything Google tells me must be true). Regardless of the pollen count as a number, the last couple of days has been a yellow haze. You can actually taste the pollen as you breathe it. My beautiful green car (that I paid too much to have washed and detailed last week) is now yellow with a hint of green. It's just disgusting. I don't have any active allergies and even I'm feeling stuffy. My wife and daughters, however, are suffering big time. Who knew a 1-year old could have allergies? Thankfully, it rained today and washed a lot of the pollen out of the air.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

On the Register!

So I was a little surprised to find a letter from the State Department today telling me that,

"...your name has been added to the register of those awaiting appointment to the Foreign Service as an Entry Level Officer in the Economic Affairs career track."

That happened a lot faster than anticipated. I thought for sure the TS clearance and final adjudication would have taken a lot longer. Guess I'm a tons more boring than I thought (and I think I'm pretty boring)! Now to DNC for a short period or not to DNC! That is a question for me and Mrs. FSOWannabe!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Musical Interlude

I've been fairly introspective of late, and that introspection has not led me towards blogging. But that does mean I've been listening to a lot of music lately.

Tiny Tin Hearts is a fantastic band out of Austin. Every time I listen to their album, I think of the countless bars all over the city that you can walk into and find great live music.

And I need to catch up with an old friend, the lead singer of a local band in Austin, who after years and years of chasing the dream gave it up to be a husband and father. I respect his decision, but miss his music.