Tag: Courage

Fifth Tour Bidding: The Early Assignments Cycle

As I mentioned in my previous post previewing bidding strategies for my upcoming fifth tour, the regular bid season won’t officially get underway until early autumn. But there are some aspects of bidding that start sooner – besides anxiety, networking, and planning – that I didn’t mention. Two of those aspects make up what we call the “early assignments cycle.”

I’m referring to Special Incentive Post (SIP) bidding and Long-Term Training and Detail (LTTD) bidding. The SIP and LTTD bid cycles are abbreviated, occurring before the regular bid cycle so the Department can quickly lock in handshakes for jobs at its highest-priority or most difficult-to-staff posts, as well as external detail and academic positions, respectively, a few months before regular bidding begins. If you receive an SIP or LTTD assignment, your bidding is done and you can watch everyone else sweat it out!

I don’t have a lot of experience with either SIPs or LTTDs. I tried to bid SIP posts from Australia during third tour bidding in 2018, but as an untenured second tour officer bidding mid-level for the first time, the experience was so unsuccessful and short-lived I don’t think I even mentioned it on the blog. And last time I bid in 2021 I didn’t really understand what LTTDs were; most of them were offered above my rank at that time. Finding out about how LTTDs work now has been a little like discovering a hidden level of a video game I thought I’d already scoped out and understood.

This time around I plan to throw my hat in the ring for both SIP and LTTD jobs. This isn’t because I don’t want any jobs in the regular bid cycle – much to the contrary, I have my eye seriously on at least a dozen of the projected vacancies! I just want to try something new and see what happens. I’ve learned a long time ago in the Foreign Service not to self-adjudicate out of opportunities. Maybe SIP or LTTD will work out and maybe they won’t, but in the meantime, here are some of my unofficial, bidder perspectives on the process. A note that none of the information in this post is intended to constitute instructions or policy.

Year in Review: 2022 Blog Stats and Recap

For me, 2022 was a profoundly strange year, filled with ups and downs. We finalized adopting our cat and moved from Mexico to Virginia, I succeeded in my 100-lb weight loss goal, took a road trip to Florida, started my fourth tour in Washington, DC, and visited the west coast three times in one year. I got promoted, saw my favorite band live, took fun beach trips with my husband, and took a family trip to Europe. But I also was knocked off-center by the traumatic death of an old friend, struggled at times to learn my new job, and dealt with illness – both my own and that of multiple family members.

Mental Health is Health

I’m continuing to catch up with blog posts from a few months ago to bring us to the present day. September 2022 marked one year since the death of my longtime friend T who I met in 1998 and who was my boyfriend off and on for a few years while I was in college. It hardly seemed possible a year had elapsed, since I’d only learned in April that he’d already been gone for seven months. It still felt new and unfathomable to me. In an attempt to find answers and process his passing, I’d gone to California in May and visited his grave, worked on a memorial plaque, and found lots of books and podcasts about suicide and grief.

In honor of T’s life and September being National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I tried some volunteer activities I’d hoped would help me feel like I was doing something that mattered. I couldn’t help the one person I really wanted to try and help, so maybe I could help someone else. But I slowly began to understand I couldn’t “action” away my grief with memorial or suicide prevention activities, nor did “grief brain” allow me the ability to take on a lot of new information or tasks. As time passed and my shock wore off, I actually felt worse as people were expecting me to start feeling better. I saw I needed to take a step back to process. Because grief is an individual journey and everything you feel when grieving is normal and OK, even if it doesn’t meet others’ expectations or even your own.

Balkan Summer 2022 Trip, Part VI: Dubrovnik to Sarajevo via Mostar

The morning we departed Croatia, we said thank you to the beach house for the wonderful memories. We were sad to leave the coast, and drove alongside it until we began to ascend into the mountains. We had taken the road to Dubrovnik’s north rather than to the south, in order to stop for lunch in Mostar – a city none of us had visited – on our way to Sarajevo. The total distance would be around 165 miles; however, drive time minus stops would be close to 4.5 hours given the mountain roads.

Not long into our journey, before we had even crossed the Croatia-Bosnia border, we saw smoke off in the distance. Initially we didn’t think much of it. But as we continued, it became darker and more ominous, and soon after we ran into a forest-fire related roadblock and detour. The detour wasn’t well-explained by the gruff policeman, and took us a fair distance off the Google Maps path we had launched before leaving beach house wifi – slightly alarming since we were navigating without live internet. However, A saved the day with an offline Snapchat map, something I hadn’t even known existed since I haven’t opened my Snapchat app for eight years. (I know.)

After we jumped that hurdle, we then had a slightly not-so-hilarious situation with one of us, who shall remain unnamed, needing a bathroom where none existed within binocular range of the Bosnian border. After idling in the weeds and hoping inquisitive soldiers wouldn’t appear at any moment and ask us what the hell we were up to, we made it across afterwards without further incident.

Blurry Summer

I am months behind in my blogging. We are somehow now less than two weeks from the end of 2022 and yet – writing life-posts chronologically as I prefer to do – I’ve most recently only written about my May/June road trip to the west coast.

As I have dealt with personal and family illness, workplace disappointments from Juárez, the January curtailment halfway through my Mexico tour, and confusion from the suicide of an old friend for most of this year, this blog has not been the platform to write about some of the darker grief on my mind. I’ve had good blog posts in draft for months, on topics from our late summer trip to the Balkans, to getting promoted in the Foreign Service, to a follow-up to my wildly popular post about Foreign Service housing, all in various stages from partly-done to mere sketchy outlines.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month: What Everyone Should Know

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in the United States, and September 4-10, 2022 marked National Suicide Prevention Week, an annual campaign to educate the public and promote increased awareness about suicide. On a personal note, one year ago this month an old friend and someone important to me took his own life, so I’d like to use this post to discuss suicide awareness. Suicide is a heavily stigmatized topic many people avoid and consider taboo. But it’s not a contagious disease. It touches so many of us and is getting harder to ignore.

In fact, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), in the United States in 2020, there were almost 46,000 reported suicide deaths; a shocking 53% of them were firearm suicides. During the same time period, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an estimated 12.2 million American adults contemplated suicide, 3.2 million made a plan, and 1.2 million Americans attempted suicide. (The true figure could be much higher, since some suicide attempts go unreported.)

Stop for a moment and consider the human toll beyond the statistics. How many friends, family members, classmates or coworkers are connected to each of those individuals? The AFSP estimates a staggering 53% to 85% of Americans have been affected in some way by suicide – whether it’s trauma from witnessing a stranger’s suicide, coping with losing a loved one, or suffering with suicidal thoughts themselves. You may know someone like this, or this may be you. So if you’re wondering whether you can do anything to help, the answer is yes. And I’m asking you to try. Suicide prevention is officially everyone’s business.

Go West, Part IV: What About Your Friends?

In mid-June, after leaving California, I spent almost a week in Washington state teleworking and otherwise helping out my dad during my stepmom’s hospitalization. In late 2018, they had made their relocation from California to Washington permanent, selling their primary home outside Monterey and moving the last of their things north.

After enjoying the uber-green surrounds plus the most alone time I’d had with my dad in years – wonderful, but a sad result of my stepmom never being released from the hospital during the duration of my visit – it was time for me to start heading towards Virginia and home. “Back east,” as west coasters say. My dad and I checked the Volkswagen’s oil and kicked the tires, and then I set off on my first leg for Idaho.

Go West, Part III: Social Media is Disconnecting Us All

After driving cross-country like an arrow in under four days, I arrived in my hometown on the last day of May and sat at my friend T’s grave. I then spent half of June teleworking from my mom’s house in California, and later made my way up to Washington state to see my dad and stepmom before turning the wheel back east towards Virginia and home.

I didn’t take much leave during my three-week road trip west. The deal I’d hastily cut with my office had been to work remotely from California so I could spend time decompressing with family while not leaving our team in the lurch. I did, however, voluntarily and consistently work on east coast time. I aligned my schedule with my colleagues’ by signing on at 5:00 a.m. west coast time, taking my lunch after my family arose for breakfast, and signing off by 2:00 p.m. Thus I was free relatively early each day to enjoy some sun and do whatever else I wanted. That mainly involved spending time with family and old friends, sitting quietly in the cemetery, or visiting places I had memories with T where I needed to be alone and process my grief.

Giving From Abundance

While abroad, many Foreign Service Officers find community through professional and social networks at the embassies or consulates where they serve. The Community Liaison Office at a post, known as the CLO, does a lot to foster this, hosting social events, planning outings, and celebrating American holidays. Participating in this community, which also includes locally engaged staff, can help us navigate a new environment while still holding on to a little bit of home. Especially during service at small or high-hardship posts, or where the culture is very different than in the United States, for example, the embassy community tends to be strong. Despite our perception in Uzbekistan that it was a bit of a fishbowl, that community was important in connecting us with information there, where we – and especially V, who’d had no Russian training – faced a higher bar to speaking the language, self-organizing domestic trips and outings, and performing daily activities. Alternatively, Australia was an English-speaking country where we were as likely to hang out with our Australian neighbors as with our American colleagues despite having two hard-working CLOs. Two posts – two different types of community, and yet both played the same role in terms of a community abroad.

And in Mexico, a much different scenario despite the warmth and hospitality of the CLO and the Mexican people. We arrived and departed during the COVID-19 pandemic, never fully settling in or getting a sense – beyond virtual events here and there – of what we understood had been a vibrant, robust consulate community. If that weren’t challenging enough, after a year of “we’re in it together” protective measures against the coronavirus, the whiplash of my feeling left behind when society decided 96% of people being safe actually was good enough and removed their masks as the Delta variant arrived and I suspected, correctly, that asymptomatic spread was occurring, made me feel erased from the consulate community in Juárez entirely.

Of course, we still had the broader El Paso community only four miles away – a key benefit of serving on the border. But ultimately it wasn’t enough, and as I could no longer stay safe in my workplace or expect the same chance everyone else there had received to emerge immunized from the pandemic, I decided to remove myself from that environment. It was in this context that I arrived just under three months ago in my adopted home state of northern Virginia feeling angry, isolated, and ejected from any sense of equity or belonging to the people and space around me.

Retreat: Home Leave 2022

This period of home leave between my third and fourth diplomatic tours has been a time to rest, recuperate, and set up life in the United States again after spending most of the last seven years abroad. At 35 business days, it has intentionally been my longest home leave since joining the Foreign Service. Counting from the day after our PCS travel to Virginia ended, to the day before my next assignment starts (holidays and weekends don’t count), I have taken exactly seven weeks. Uniquely, for the first time, I’ve spent it all on the east coast.

How I Lost 100 Pounds in 2021

The title of this blog post sounds like one of those sensational click-bait articles you read because its title is too hard to resist. They usually turn out to be disappointing and filled with spammy pop-ups. This won’t be that kind of post. No spam, no gimmicks, no affiliate links. I’m not selling anything or trying to convince anyone of anything. And I’m not going to tell anyone how quick and easy it was to lose 100 pounds, because honestly, it wasn’t. At times it was very difficult, especially at the beginning. It also isn’t my intention to suggest being overweight is unacceptable or something in need of correction; we – and in particular women – hear enough of those messages.

What I will do is share my honest journey to lose weight and regain my health after five years of illness and injury, which was necessary and medically indicated for me. I will outline my weight loss strategies and the lessons I learned to satisfy the curiosity of the many who have asked me how I did it. But I want to caution that although my methods worked for me, they won’t necessarily be successful or appropriate for everyone. This is simply what has worked to bring me to the place where I am today. I have learned a huge component of a weight loss journey is knowing yourself well enough to understand what your individual triggers, strengths, needs, preferences, organizational style, medical history, and discipline will require and allow. And speaking of reading, like most things I write, this post is not a quick scroll. It was a complex and personal journey and not easy to write out. I tried to organize it in a way that’s easy to read and follow, but like the journey itself, I didn’t find shortcuts in getting to the end.

However, I hope the road I took and my results will be inspiring, interesting, and motivating to others. So if you’re interested in why I decided to lose 100 pounds in 2021, how I succeeded, and 12 lessons I learned in doing so – keep reading!

Farewell, Mexico

My last night of every overseas tour, I have traditionally bid the assignment goodbye with a post I draft and publish upon my departure the following day. As much chaos as a PCS entails, once the packout is over, the badge is handed in, and the suitcases are packed, I will find moments of calm to reflect upon such an exercise. I did so in 2017, in the wee hours before the expeditor came for us in Uzbekistan, filled with gratitude and nerves. I did so in 2019 as we wrapped up our last breakfast in Australia on the back veranda, when the only thing that kept my heart from bursting was that winter had made our vibrant, colorful yard cold and still.

And now I’m getting ready to do it again in 2022. This morning we will load up our cars and begin our nearly 2,000 mile drive across Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee to our new home in northern Virginia. The end of this tour feels both too soon and like it should have happened months ago. I probably won’t truly understand how I feel about it for a long time, but it’s a definitive goodbye all the same. As we start over we will carry with us a piece of this place we barely got to know, and I will leave a piece of myself behind.

Suckerpunch II: The Last Guardrail

As Christmas approaches, I am in a period of reflection and gratitude, but you might not know it from looking. This is the first year since 2006 that I haven’t put up a Christmas tree, and the only year I haven’t really bought Christmas gifts or sent a single holiday card. I’m not making Christmas cookies or any special holiday food. On the Autoimmune Protocol I can’t have the vast majority of it anyway, and modifying all the recipes would take more creativity and talent than I have at the moment. V didn’t put Christmas lights outside this year, or plug in our obnoxious inflatable snowman who rose with a wave for the last 15 years to greet anyone who approached our home for the holidays. It’s quite different than the enormous effort I made last year. And frankly all the years.

I’m not sad about it, although I admit it does sound sad. I love Christmas. Every time someone asks me, “Are you ready for Christmas?” with a bright smile, I smile back under my mask and say, “Yes I am.” I don’t say I am conserving my energy because I am exhausted, or it snuck up on me, or I’m busy covering my job and my boss’s job. I was doing all that last year too, and I still bought the gifts and trimmed the tree and cooked the dinner… even with a spinal cord injury!

I say I’m ready because we’re not doing it this year, so there’s nothing to get ready for. Our priorities have shifted: we are in full PCS mode. I have decided to end my assignment in Mexico, and in early January, we will pack out our house and return to Virginia.

Sarah W Gaer

Author, Speaker, Thought Leader

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