Am I Going to Starve to Death?: A Survival Guide for the Foreign Service Spouse

Posted: 2:55 am EDT
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We’ve previously featured Donna Scaramastra Gorman in this blog. She writes the Email From The Embassy blog and she’s out with a book! Check out Am I Going to Starve to Death?: A Survival Guide for the Foreign Service Spouse.

2015_07_Donna_Kindle

Click on image to see the book on Amazon

One reviewer on Amazon writes, “The first few paragraphs have me smirk, scoff and snort. It’s about time the Foreign Service has a guide that doesn’t bullsh*t. FS life is cool and fascinating but it’s not always pretty. Nor glamourous.”

Teh-heh!

By way of introduction, Donna writes this:

There is a saying in the State Department: “It depends.”[…] It’s terrifying, in a way, that the answer to every question you have about the Foreign Service can be summed up with those two little words.

That’s the State Department’s unofficial motto. We’ll entertain an alternative unofficial motto, but we don’t think you’ll find one.

Ambassador John Ordway (former ambassador to Armenia and Kazakhstan) gave the book five stars on Amazon and writes:  “With 40 years living the Foreign Service life under my belt, I found myself chuckling with fond recollection on nearly every page. Based on her years of experience trotting the globe for the U.S. State Department, Donna Gorman explains (and predicts) some of the lessons we’ve all learned — and maybe wish we had not learned. No matter where you’re coming from or where you’re headed, I guarantee you’ll leave with a smile on your face and a new arsenal of useful tips for things to do, and not do, as you contemplate the Foreign Service life.”

We enjoyed reading this book. It feels familiar but also informal like the author is chatting with a friend who doesn’t yet know anything about the Foreign Service.  It is a fun read but also painful in some parts. We remember — boy, we’re old — back in 2007, Donna also lost her hearing on the right ear due to a viral infection when her family was posted in China.  Anyway, yup, cried over Chapter 27 of this book, probably the hardest part to read.  Will this book scare off people interested in the Foreign Service? Can’t tell, of course, but we’d say it would be best to know more and learn to manage one’s expectations, than know so little that one expects a charmed life abroad.

Here’s a brief bio:  Donna Scaramastra Gorman is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Huffington Post, the Foreign Service Journal, the Seattle Times, Parade Magazine, the Insider’s Guide to Beijing and several other outlets.  Gorman is a Foreign Service spouse, married to a federal agent with the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. They and their four children have been posted together in Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, China, Jordan and the U.S. Gorman also spent a year as a single parent while her husband completed a tour in Baghdad.  They are currently posted in Moscow.

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BlogHer Voices of the Year: Two Foreign Service Bloggers Running in the Op-Ed Category

Two Foreign Service bloggers are currently in the running for the op-ed category in BlogHer’s Voices of the Year initiative.

One is Donna S. Gorman of Email From The Embassy for her piece from September 13, 2013 simple titled, Here in Jordan.  “I wrote this post after an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi left 4 Americans dead, including our Ambassador to Libya. I wanted to give a voice to those who died that night, so that Americans back home would understand the enormity of the sacrifice our diplomats – my friends, colleagues and loved ones – make on their behalf every day.” Excerpt below:

It was a scary, scary night, followed by many sad and scary days after the incident was over. It ended with blood spilled, and cars crashed, and magazines emptied. It ended with us being evacuated from post, not sure if we’d ever be allowed back. It ended with me finally truly understanding what kind of life we were living, when everything can change without a moment’s notice, when the people you love are out there, somewhere, doing things you can only imagine, to stop the bad guys from hurting the good guys. It ended with me realizing that my husband could have died, could still, at any time, die, because of the work he does, because he chooses to run into situations from which other people run away.

Continue reading, Here in Jordan. 

If you want to vote for Donna, click here: http://www.blogher.com/here-jordan-0 .

The other blogger is Jen Dinoia of  The Dinoia Family for her piece on May 16, 2012 titled, Wanted: Stories of the ‘Real’ Foreign Service. This is that blog post about her blog not being FS enough (remember nipplegate?): “I was asked to be on an official Department of State blog roll three years ago.  Last year, I was unceremoniously bumped off and learned it was because I discussed my experience with breast cancer (reconstruction, actually) in too much detail and it was not relevant to FS life.  The blog post is my rebuttal and opinion on why I feel it is extremely relevant.”  Excerpt below:

Sunday evening, when I noticed the blog missing, I wrote to the online specialist who had contacted me way back when.  The next day I heard from a new community specialist.  I was told in no uncertain terms that my blog does not have “content relevant to the U.S. Foreign Service”.  When I replied back with a description of the content that is more than related, I received a response from yet another new person.  The response from that person?

Hopefully, you can understand that some topics covered in your blog are very personal in nature, e.g. nipple cozies, and wouldn’t necessarily resonate with the majority of potential candidates who are interested in learning about the FS life overseas. Through our years of recruitment experience, we found that FS prospects want to learn more about the work that’s conducted, the people and cultures with whom they will interact, the travel experiences, and the individual stories our employees* have to share.  

Read her full post here.

If you want to vote for Jen, click here: http://www.blogher.com/wanted-stories-real-foreign-service

You must be logged in to vote for either one. You can also vote by signing in using FB, Twitter, Google, WordPress, Blogger and LiveJournal.

Good luck! ¡Buena suerte! Buona fortuna!

— DS

 

 

 

Foreign Service Blogging: Tigers Have Teeth, Rather Sharp … Rawr!!!

Our blog pal, Donna of Email From the Embassy recently posted about trying to figure out “why some State bloggers are allowed to blog, while others are, shall we say, vigorously discouraged.”

A while back someone else also wrote to inform me that he/she was “strongly reminded” that blogging can lead to at least pulling the security clearance, forced (involuntary) curtailment, followed by loss of job, arrest, detainment and prosecution.

Understandably, that blog is not here or there, anymore.

The Tigers roared baring fangs, which means the threat of no food on the table, arrest, detainment, well, just about everything, really.  Except they forgot to include non-promotion and career suicide. Of course, if you lose your job, there would be no point worrying about a promotion or a career.

Exactly. See how that works?! Big Rawr!


They also forgot to mention perpetual detainment at Gitmo. First amendment, my foot! If your blog links to any cable released by WikiLeaks, the Tigers will probably bite you for secondary leaking of classified materials. Or worse, espionage!

Fear as we all know is a great motivator.  And it is probably worth noting that Tigers are stalk-and-ambush hunter, and the stripes are good camouflage in the long grass. Check with the Post Report if your next assignment has long grasses.

In some places, the Foreign Service is now like a scene out of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, only this time, the letter one wears in not “A” for Adultery but “B” for Blogger. You blog at your own risk under the Big House’s 21st century statecraft jungle regardless of the nice things they say about freedom and the Internets.

Here are a few things I’m kicking around the campfire concerning the various disappearances of Foreign Service bloggers through the years. A quick caveat: I am talking out loud there, so try not to misconstrue the following as an advice in any shape or form; they’re not.  Also please do not write and ask for “real” examples of “Tiger” blog take down.  They are not my stories to tell and I respect the privacy of the bloggers who make no public explanation of their online death.

“Vague” Blogging, More Confusing Than You Think

One of my correspondents write that it seems like “FS bloggers should never mention *anything* about work.”  Why? Probably because vague blogging isn’t as vague as you think and you never know who’s reading your blog?  Even if Diplomatic Security sees no problem with your blog, your regional/functional bureau or post management may have issues with it.  I don’t think it has anything to do with what you write per se, it has everything to do with fear and the lack of control. Fear from management that your blog has a ready, captive audience and fear that you might write something out of turn. And there is the notion that you have a direct connection to an audience and your right to self expression has not undergone any sort of vetting by the higher-ups who luv their red pens!

A misplaced fear, for sure. No FS blogger as far as I know has caused any international incident to-date. Can’t say the same for our non-blogging diplomats at the US Consulate in Hyderabad, and the US Consulate General in Chennai who both suffered from foot in mouth disease here and here.

You’re all smart, of drinking age and can vote, so what’s the problem?  Well, I think perhaps the Tiger daddies are wondering — what if you’re like a car with no brakes when it comes to blogging? Thus, FSOs are trusted with classified materials but cannot be trusted to know what they can/cannot write publicly online.  Spouses and partners (aka: Eligible Family Members or EFMs) on the other hand should be seen but not read because they ought not have opinions about anything whatsoever, being just spouses and all with no  logons (no logons = not real people). EFMs have long been declared their own persons under the Big House rules. Apparently, they are their own person but there’s no reason why they should have their own opinions!

Borderline idiotic to put it politely.

Blogging About Anything With a C is Bad For Your Health

Another correspondent suggested that maybe folks should never blog anything that could be perceived as critical towards the Foggied Bottom, the Foreign Service, the host country, or ones clients (visa applicants, AmCits, official contacts, etc. etc.), even if you’re only complaining about somebody sneezing or snoring loudly.

Concerned about all promotions going to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan hands regardless of actual performance? Okay, but that may not be the best subject to blog about, most especially if you’re bidding.

Big House functionaries talking about internet freedom really hurts your ears now? Okay, but it won’t do any good to talk about the cause of that ear ache in your blog.

You cannot/cannot blog about the smell you have to endure as you sit in your visa interview window because it’s bad form to talk about body odors, period. You cannot/cannot blog and complain about seeing boobies with nursing mommies as you conduct visa interviews because breastfeeding is udderly not optional when you have a screaming infant. Trust me on this.

You cannot make snarky comments in your blog about your Amcit clients no matter how loony and unreasonable their demands might be (they are covered by the Privacy Act of 1974). You cannot complain in your blog that your host country has no sidewalks, it might upset the Tourism Bureau. You cannot complain in your blog about getting Montezuma’s Revenge because it might upset the host country’s Sanitation Bureau.  And on and on …you get the drift? Somewhere there’s a fill in the blank form in the shared drive on what FSOs should not
blog about, but don’t look for that list in the FAM.

EFMs must not blog about how every transfer is like a reinvention of wheels at the Big House because it would make the HR Bureau look bad. Gawd lord! They should not blog that their spouse’s HR Technician kept messing up their Travel Orders because it makes the HR staff look incompetent (and some of them are). They should blog zilch /nada about housing, because hey, it’s free housing and the leaking roof should not be a big deal! They should not blog about the American school because isn’t it enough that you are in a country with an American school? EFMs above all should not blog too loudly about the lack of embassy jobs; didn’t ya know that 9.1% of Americans in the United States of America are out of work?! Somewhere there’s a fill in the blank form about what EFMs should not blog about, but it’s a secret until they call you or your spouse for that Talk.  (I’m having a hard time locating my sarcasm off button, sorry!)

Blogging in Lake Wobegon, the International Edition

Still one more correspondent wailed that she only blogged about her life, what’s wrong with that?  Well, I don’t know what’s wrong with that either.  It looks like if you blog about yourself and your hobbies OR your feelings (I had a bad day, I’m lonely in my new country, the singles crowd sucks, I can’t use the APO or pouch for my home business, my spouse is too attentive to his FSN, or whatever else is the color, flavor or heartache of the day) the Tigers may do more than growl. Because obviously, if you are not happy in your host country, you are not/not trying hard enough at it. Readers and Tigers may feel you’re not a great fit in this lifestyle of the not so famous possible evacuees.  You are the face of Lake Wobegon International, after all; a less than perfect or happy example is not/not a good thing.

5 FAM 790 (Using Social Media): A Lamppost of Discouragement

The Big House makes a big deal about freedom of expression and internet freedom in the public square but in reality those things do not mean a lot inside the big house. Even as the organization tries to project itself as being innovative, it is hindered by its outdated structure, regulations and hierarchy.  5 FAM 790 (Using Social Media) is a pretense of sorts by virtue of its impracticality.  Even in private writings, FSOs are supposed to request permission for their blog posts, tweets and anything they write under the  “of official concern” umbrella.  Which is like the whole world, see from Algeria to Zimbabwe.

Under the regs, the agency gets at least 30 days to review submissions. Who has the time to do that? More to the point, who has the time to approve such personal writings done outside of work? And if one FS blogger is expressly required to obtain multiple clearances for his/her blog posts/tweets/etc but others are not, what does that mean?  And if  the blog posts are not cleared in 30 days, is the blogger then free to publish all his/her stale blog posts/stale tweets/stale etc. and private ruminations without the Tigers growling?  Most blogs carry the necessary disclaimers required under the regs, but I understand that the Big House can still declare them insufficient.  Which makes me now think that 5 FAM 790 which cites 27 legal authorities is there not really as a guide but as a lamppost of discouragement.

It’s as if it is saying — you are free to blog/tweet/summersault online in this great free country of ours, but it’s best for your own sake, if you don’t.

The regs says that “As a general matter, the Department encourages the responsible use of social media consistent with current laws, policies and guidance that govern information and information technology. Department organizations will not arbitrarily ban access to or the use of social media.”

I think the key phrase is “responsible use” which is, of course, subject to interpretation but — not your interpretation of what is “responsible.”

“Allowed” to Blog, Much Better for Mini-DipNotes?

I am convinced that some bloggers are “allowed” to blog by default because their bosses have no idea what a blog is. Seriously.

Some bloggers are “allowed” to blog because maybe they are lucky enough to have adult bosses with no control issues who recognize that warts and all are part and parcel of real life, even in organizations. As long as your blog does not end up in NYT or Al Kamen’s column, you’re safe. Of course, their bosses may have blogs, too 🙂 and did not want to be outed!

Some bloggers are “allowed” to blog because no one has yet complained about them, or the blog is obscure enough it does not register on anyone’s radar screen.

Some bloggers are “allowed” to blog because their bosses look the other way.  These blogs are usually like mini-DipNotes. What’s the harm in letting them PR blog for free? And if they write something nice about their bosses, then that is super great, too.

Finally, I think some bloggers are “allowed” to blog because the Big House has not yet found the right stick to scare them to death and make them stop.  In almost all instances  they eventually find the right stick, so the blog disappears. Unless … the blog stays …. in which case … well, that’s another story down the road.

FS Blogs, a Questionable Future…Maybe, Maybe Not

I’ve lost count the number of FS blogs that have gone dark.  A trend that is both disturbing and sad.  In the end, I think every FS blogger must decide on his/her own comfort level and decide how much grief he/she is willing to put up with in order to blog, tweet or FB.  As long as the Big House considers blogging a “dangerous” hobby or preoccupation even in its employees/family members private capacities, this is also a “livelihood” issue.  When you butt head with city hall, you will get more than a headache.

They presumably can dig up everything “bad” you have done previously (what, you did not recycle in Caracas?). Apparently, they can also yank your security clearance, which would make it almost impossible to do work anywhere in the Foggied Bottom except cleaning latrines, if you’re lucky. As to why they are running after spouses who blog, who after all are not employees of the U.S. Government and have long been declared their own persons, I can’t say.

Below is a snippet on blogging by Mitch Joel dubbed the “Rock Star of Digital Marketing:”

I had the opportunity to interview Lemmy from Motorhead.
Within the rock circle, Lemmy is the equivalent of Jesus. A true
pioneer. But, unlike most rock stars, Lemmy has a couple of really big
warts on his face, very greasy hair and truly lives the “sex, drugs and
rock n’ roll lifestyle.” Basically, he says and does what he wants and
never answers to anyone but himself.

A Blog can’t be Bon Jovi. A Blog is much more like Lemmy.

You can get away with mis-spelled words, non-precise grammar and it’s
supposed to have more of a stream-of-consciousness flow to it. A Blog
is the glory of a personal voice – warts and all. That is why people are
gravitating toward them.


Just so you know I am not advocating a free for all blog world, please read my post, Secretary Clinton on #NetFreedom … excuse me for not clapping …
where I talked about the restrictions that come with being an employee and the trade offs we all make whether in the public
sector, the private sector or even my own nowhere place.  The
trade-offs, remember? 


The Scaredy World of Blogging

The genie if out of the bottle. It refuses to go back in!

When I started blogging a few years back, there were a few dozen Foreign Service bloggers.  Today, there are close to 500 blogs by Foreign Service officers, specialists and family members. Even as I watch blogs go quietly dark, I have also seen the number of bloggers grow like weeds.   Some blogs go silent especially after a scaredy session at A-100 but others eventually return online. Some blogs get password-protected, others eventually come out in the open.

And as blogs go dark, other blogs soon take their places.  The cycle of life mimics itself even online.

Unless the Big House makes reasonable tweaks and accommodations in its unhelpful regulations on blogging and the use of social media, there will come a time when it’ll need be forced to create a new office: the Office of Professional Responsibility in Participatory Media.  The new office obviously would need a new staff just to keep track, and monitor this active writerly group in the Foreign Service community. It would also need new staff to process and clear blog posts, tweets, FB posts, public forum posts, etc. etc. from Foreign Service community members.  It would need new staff to write up pink slips for those who write outside the chalk marks. Above all, it would need an Ombudsman to ensure that the 30 day clearance requirement is adhered to and is not an excuse to derail the scheduled blog post of any member of the community.

I’d like to hear how they’ll explain that personnel expansion to Congress.

Truth to tell, I have not seen or heard of Tigers actually yanking anybody’s clearance due to an offending blog. I am aware of private sessions of discouragements, issues with onward assignments, and of course, threats of various colors and stripes among FS bloggers.  And as far as I know, they have not technically kicked out anyone who blogs either —  unless you call the “push” to retirement a payback kick.

Fear as we all know is a great motivator.  Sometimes, a Tiger’s growl is just that, a growl and enough to do the job. Of course, it does not mean that the Tiger will not also eat you!

Housekeeping

1) If you would rather that I not link to you in my side bar, please send me a quick email at http://www.contactify.com/29ca0. I will promptly remove the link.

2) I have stopped the practice of highlighting FS blogs at DiploPundit. If you write something  interesting that I absolutely must link to, or highlight for my readership, I will send an email request for permission before I do so.

3) Somebody asked if anyone has ever threatened this blog. The answer is no. But if it happens, the threat will be publish in full.

4) Do make a mental note that I do not/not
work for the Big House. I monitor the goings on in the Foggied Bottom because, why not?  It’s a hard job, somebody’s gotta do it. 
Please read my disclaimer.