Sunday, February 26, 2006

Strange Advocates

number 5/2006

For the majority of the last two months we have been wedging geographic information into and in between every other topic or activity. Our heads have become globes, and they are spinning. 2,172 words.

[NL]—In my opinion, the starting point for this new life was back on October 12th, 2004. That was the day that Sunshine was assigned to her first foreign post. The internal post ceremony, called Flag Day, is a time-honored culmination of several months worth of struggle and fuss to secure a decent starting point within Sunshine’s field of employment. The story of that day is here. On Flag Day, we discovered that we were to be moving to Monterrey, Mexico for two years beginning in February, 2005.

On January 17th 2006 I was working a crossword puzzle with my mother in a little deli in Greensboro, NC when this process started all over again. I got a call from Sunshine who was at work in Mexico; she had just received the new list of positions we were to be bidding for next. Back in 2004, the list of available positions had been tailored to her graduating class, and therefore consisted of only entry-level positions, sized to correspond with the number of people in Sunshine’s class. From these, we had carefully chosen a list of viable positions based on Sunshine’s desire to possibly learn a new language and get some of her career requirements completed. During this time, every other member of Sunshine’s class was doing the same. A whole community, for a month, stopped talking about anything else. The air was filled with department jargon referring to cities, positions, and equities; ranked by how, were and, most importantly, why. It was sometimes hard to hold all of this stuff in one head. Plus, it was impossible not to at least half-way keep up with the lists of other people, people who were ranking the exact same positions we were. On Flag Day, we were assigned to post in Monterrey, México, based on Sunshine’s ability to speak Spanish and the need to fill a position there immediately. During the Flag Day ceremony, of course, we also got to watch the rest of our list be assigned to other people. It was a relief to finally begin concentrating on one country, only; but it was bittersweet.

This new bidding process opened a bit differently. Gone was Sunshine’s requirement to work a specific type of job, for example, within a specific type of language. Gone were certain restrictions based on first-time bidders. Lastly, the list was much longer due to the simple fact that it was no longer tailored for a specific graduating class. It was chilly that day outside the deli; and while mom worked our crossword for us, I stood and listened to Sunshine rattle off most of three hundred and sixty-four available positions abroad. It seemed unbelievable that we were going to have to whittle this down to a ranked list of twenty positions by February. My head was already spinning.

“Abidjan-CON, Abidjan-CON, Abu Dhabi-POL, Addis Ababa-COL/POL…”

“Addis Ababa is Ethiopia?”

“Yes. Ait Taipei-CON, CON, Ankara-CON, CON, APAO, Ashgabat-CAO…”

First, it was necessary to crop this whole list down to something a little bit smaller. We were able to eliminate many of the jobs because Sunshine was no longer required to do them, in the language Sunshine was no longer required to bid on. There were many posts we could cross off because they were unaccompanied positions in conflict-stricken areas. This meant that we were not really looking at much of the Middle East, the entire western hemisphere, or many interesting places in between. Also, while Sunshine is still interested in learning another language, it would be better for her to learn a country specific language that does not typecast her too much in a certain area. We already have that going on a little in this hemisphere, and Sunshine’s Spanish proficiency will likely have us bouncing back to Latin America on and off throughout her career. If we were to go to an Arabic speaking country now, for example, that would be it: we’d spend the rest of our lives in one or the other kind of place. We would rather have a little more diversity than that, if possible.

“No: Bogotá Bogotá-POL/ECON, Bogotá, Bogotá, Bogotá, but: Bratislava-ECON”

“Brussels-GSO okay, Bucharest-CON-ECON damn, Bucharest-CON, Bucharest-CON, Bucharest-AGSO though, Budapest-CON-POL, damn.”

“That’s it for the B’s. Cairo, Cairo, Cairo-AIO, Canberra. Skip Caracas?”

Once we’d done away with the things we weren’t looking for, we could concentrate on the things we were. It was a goal to gear our list toward smaller areas where hopefully our two-year stay would be adequate to see much of the country. In this way we were able to eliminate large and interesting places, like India and China. Places we are very interested in living later when Sunshine is tenured and our stays there are longer. Another important factor: salary differentials for hardship or danger get combined and recorded as accrued job equity. This helps during the process of bidding for a new job. Hardship differentials can be based on the difficulty in achieving expected quality of life due to a number of possible factors. These can include, badly paved roads or difficulty in obtaining goods or services. It can also be based on more immediate hardships such as the prevalence of disease, street crime, or distance from home. Danger pay almost solely consists of the possibility of the employee’s life being threatened by wars or political factions targeting Americans. More realistic dangers (hurricanes, mosquitoes, bacteria, corrupt police with AK-47s) tend to fall under hardship pay instead of actual danger. In our case, there is a five percent equity attached to our position in Monterrey, probably because of the pollution. This means that we will be able to pick our next position over people who are currently working positions with zero equity, posts like Paris or London; but after people in higher equity posts like Kinshasa (twenty percent) or Baghdad (fifty percent). Sunshine was interested in getting a little more equity this time around, and was thus able to focus her attentions toward certain types of places. After Monterrey, I just wanted to go someplace that got cold. Eventually, we were able to look at this long list in a far more manageable way. We had cut it down to a list of fifty-some positions that were all in one way or another interesting to one or both of us.

“Dar-Es-Salaam, Praia, Maputo, Cape Verde, Kinshasa, Cairo, what am I missing?


“No, Djer booty!”

This process above happened while we were in different countries during the end of January. There were long and strange international phone conversations back and forth. The two of us both worked with the list and independently, coming up with personal twenty-position lists picked in a vacuum. Sunshine did a major amount of internal research, learning about these jobs from the people who currently have them. She accrued facts about the housing, the distances necessary to walk or drive to get around in these actual city spaces abroad, and the consumer goods available at these posts. In other words, she learned useful things about the quality and cost of expatriate life in the cities we were considering. I did a little more “traveler’s fantasy” -type research, learning about the cultures, the architecture, the food. I looked up many photographs of interesting places in travel books and magazines, ruminated over the histories of seven hundred year old cities and important international regions. In this way, both of us managed to make personal bid lists that were wholly different from one another, using the same stock of about fifty positions. In some cases, it was because one or the other of us ignored the rules above for a really cool position (in my case, it was very hard to accept that we were not going to be bidding on Kathmandu, Nepal because Sunshine did not want to do the job that was available there). Mostly, our lists were different because we have different ideas about, and interests in, the world. By the time I came back to México at the beginning of February, we were ready to really wade into the thick of the process: from here on out we would become strange advocates for the places that had arbitrarily, over the previous two weeks, become very near and dear to our hearts. In this way we would try to percolate one final, two-person list from the two personal lists we had already made.

“Don’t think of it as a country, think of it as a city. Everything that ever happened in modern history happened here, first.”

“Is every known species of lemur indigenous there?”

“No, but it’s, like, a five-hour train ride to eight other places on this list.”

For those three weeks the odd conversations intensified. Each of us did a little giving-up on, and a little hard-selling for, our places of choice. There was never a sense that we were arriving at the final decisions we were making in any other way than harmonious and gracious discussion. Sunshine was interested in several places in Africa that I was less interested in. On the other hand, she had no idea originally what I found so alluring about many places in Eastern Europe. So we taught each other, and the final draft was tugged and nudged and finely-tuned until it was something very acceptable to us both. I was telling her all about the temperatures and the climates and colored houses and accessible canals, and she was telling me all about the price of cereal and the sitting rooms and the fact that there was going to be a new Embassy being built. In this way, our understanding of the actual fact of the new place, and the act of living and working there, was becoming far more well-rounded. We also discovered that we were very interested in places we had not thought about much before (Tbilisi, Georgia, for example), places we discovered an affinity for together. It was strange to watch my perception warp from the beginning of the process to the end of it. At the beginning, I would have been pretty happy to accept a position in any of the fifty-some places that became our master guideline, but by the end I was very much interested in the places I was advocating. The hardest stage for me ended up being the positioning of the list itself. Ranking these positions one through twenty was very difficult, and the prejudices I had to foster to keep it from seeming purely arbitrary made it more. It was obvious that on different days, for example, I was more interested in Chisinau, Moldova than Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania. The next day, I was unable to recapture what it was I had possibly been thinking, and these positions were reordered again. The strange conversations between Sunshine and me continued along these lines for days. On our final list of twenty one (we added one extra because we were worried that our first choice was scheduled too tightly), there were finally two places I was fairly uninterested in going. In at least one of these two cases, it was a place I had debated a week before to have higher on the list.

“Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Chisinau, Bucharest, Dar-Es-Salaam, Maputo, then Hanoi again, then Antananarivo, then Ho Chi Minh again.”

“then Tbilisi, then Dar-Es-Salaam, then Maputo and Antananarivo before Hanoi again, then Djibouti…”

“I’ll move Tel Aviv to nineteen if Hanoi two can still be at seven.”

On the day we officially submitted out final bid proposal, February 24th, we had the only really tense moment we endured during the whole process. On the day we submitted, we discovered that one of our ranked positions had been closed. After having been very prepared for this deadline all week, we had to pick a replacement right then. Several harried phone calls later, our list was submitted to Sunshine’s career counselor. Sometime this week, he will sit down in a room with the career councilors of the other bidders and hash out, based on rank and equity and interest, which of Sunshine’s coworkers will get which position. I have heard that the waiting is the worst part of the process, but while I am certainly on the edge of my seat, I am glad that the choosing part is over. That part was grueling. By the time the results are in, I will have completely reverted back to my attitude at the beginning of this whole ordeal: there were twenty-one positions on that final list, and I would be happy to accept any of them. What was I thinking trying to decide between Antananarivo, Madagascar and Bratislava, Slovakia? How did I manage to do that? Maybe the very hardest part of the whole process is going to be the assigning itself. There is little danger of our getting posted to a place of tepid interest this time around, but once one position is chosen for us it will mean that we will have to mourn the loss of the other twenty possibilities.

photo © the Author

Quiet Reading Room

This is a quiet reading room. Often, I find it is uncomfortable to digest long tubes of columned text directly off a computer screen. This journal is dedicated to the collection, percolation, and ultimate integration of my personal experiences. Subjects that I want to examine and then talk about--sometimes talk a lot about--€”are presented here. This central content can tend to thousands of words, maybe millions. I was afraid that readers were leaving the presentation boggled, spinning, googly-eyed. Or perhaps when confronted with twenty-four inches, or yards, of monitor sprawl they were just giving up. I am not even certain that I have necessarily solved this inevitable content problem of modern information enjoyment, but here is what I have done.

After long and highly scientific routines manipulating double-blind control- and test-subjects, peer reviewed journal publications, and hours and hours of hands-on experimentation, I have crafted this quiet reading room. There is no scientific way to control the length of the articles I write, but careful handling can somewhat soothe the contextual presentation. In other words: I have dropped the traditional speculation about lexicon, and attacked the question of the matrix itself instead. Brilliant. After years of diligence what I eventually crafted is this reading room.

The walls are contoured to relax instead of constrain; the paper is made to soften instead of reflect. The light is dimmed--just so--€”to prevent strain, angled to prevent umbra, and color-coded to soften harsh red lights and deepen wimpy light reds. There is nothing I can do to control aural environment, but my recommendation is that it should be kept quiet. About ambient sound: these entries are probably best read as far as possible from emergency vehicles, preferably from beneath the muffler of a vintage fire fighter pilot's scarf, puffy old duvet, or snow that is still falling.

My theory is that the wide web world is filled with potent and material opportunities that are just too difficult to digest for many people to take part. Enjoyment of this stuff is regulated to the routines of crawlers and robots at the peril of humankind's peaceful future survival. In an attempt to delay this likely outcome: welcome to this quiet reading room. It is for people like you to relax, kick back, and hate my content for better reasons than the dizzying vertiginous specter of its lousy dpi presentation.

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