Sunday, November 24, 2013

Since Last We Spoke

I suppose the first clue really was when I began to receive unsolicited advice on "how to retire". Up until then I was blithely ignoring the fact that I had moved gently past my fifth decade. In fact, I have never really matured much beyond my early thirties so chronological age was a matter of great indifference to me. I haven't fought growing 'older and wiser' so much as I've just never really thought that the concept applied to me. Peter Pan is my patron saint!

Then, naturally, I met a blonde. Isn't that the way it always begins? She's a young woman, much younger than me, and I fell in love with her at first sight. By the time she threw up on my shirt it was too late, I was already hooked. There's nothing like having a gorgeous blue-eyed blonde four-month old granddaughter to make you sit up and say, "Wow, I'm a grandfather!". It makes me think that I should begin to act my age, so I've begun surreptitiously studying old people to see how they do it. I think having some modicum of dignity seems to be a key factor which is, of course, unfortunate for me.

This is Lilly!

Lilly is just like all babies her age except that she's brighter, prettier and can projectile vomit like a sailor on shore leave. Line up any of your chosen baby competitors and my money is on Lilly to beat the bunch on both distance and viscosity. Even without that undeniably awesome talent, she is amazingly adorable. I'm working desperately now to acquire dignity but I'm pretty sure that I'm going to be a continuing source of embarrassment to her throughout her formative years! It's good to have goals.

At work I assumed that my incredible achievement and unparalleled accomplishment of becoming a grandfather would earn me some small measure of respect from my colleagues. Sadly, most of my younger colleagues do not recognize the effort involved in attaining the status of Grandfather and continue to verbally abuse me on a daily basis. Boy, will their attitudes towards me require a serious adjustment when I become dignified.

Well along the road to Dignity!

Embassy Port Moresby is growing or more accurately continues to grow. When I arrived at the embassy, a bit over two years ago, we were a small easy-going South Pacific outpost with ten officers, no client agencies, and established housing for everyone (more or less, I lived in a hotel for four months but that's an old story). Our Escape & Evacuation vessel, the SS Merio, worked imperfectly and only occasionally but still provided sporadic recreation for the team. For reasons that still puzzle me, Embassy Port Moresby, even in those days, had a terrible reputation among Foreign Service bidders and our open positions went begging. We are officially classified as a Service Needs or Hard To Fill post and the State Dept. finds it necessary to offer a financial incentive to attract bidders.

The reality is that Embassy Port Moresby is a great place in which to serve. In the past two years we've doubled in personnel numbers, added five new Foreign Service officer positions, welcomed four client agencies to the community, expanded our housing pool exponentially, upgraded all our IT systems and begun construction on a new embassy compound down by the waterfront. We represent the United States in one of the most unique and diverse nations on earth. It's true that our work is challenging but that makes everything we accomplish all the more rewarding. Even after doubling in size we're still a small post and that gives us all the advantages inherent in being part of a team with very little fat. At Embassy Port Moresby every single officer has an opportunity to really make a difference. In our monolith embassies you can either get lost or hide and serve unnoticed, not so much in our small posts.

We've just gone through the bidding season to find replacements for those of us who will depart post this coming summer and, once again, Embassy Port Moresby seemed to hold all the allure of a dark dumpster-filled alley in that part of town where cops cruise the streets in pairs. It's true that Papua New Guinea can be an extremely violent place, but so are many of our posts in developing countries around the world and the violence here is random and not targeted at expatriates. In fact, Americans are quite well liked here. And yet, we don't get a whole lot of love during bidding season. However, we did get several bidders for my job and have officially selected my replacement. We offered her a handshake and she accepted it. She appears to be a terrific choice for us and I already feel good about handing the tools of Management power over to her in August! And to encourage further interest in post from any prospective bidders, the SS Merio has been fully overhauled and works with a remarkable degree of consistency.

The SS Merio safely home from the sea!

My immediate goal is to bring some semblance of organization to the section but to do so I should really begin with my desk and just as soon as I find it under the colossally untidy pile of papers, envelopes, pens, coffee cups, rulers, magazines and general debris that cover it, I'll whip it into shape. Once my desk again resembles a desk in the generally accepted sense of the word I'll stride forth from my office with a large club in my hand and bring order to the chaos that is my domain. I jest. My management style runs more to weeping copiously and pleading with my subordinates to cooperate.

In retrospect, now that the end of my tour and career are in sight, I think that I was entirely wrong for this position. I came into it with very little experience in the Management section of the State Dept. and I will retire from this post. Challenging posts like Port Moresby deserve either a very experienced Management officer or an officer who will go on to serve at other posts with the invaluable training acquired here. As it is, I've become a moderately competent Management Officer just in time to take that experience to the golf course where it won't do my short game a bit of good.

I intend to enroll in State's WAE Program after August. State often offers time-limited contracts to retired officers to fill gaps in staffing at posts around the world. A retired officer can work for a maximum of six months a year on this plan and I stand ready to drop my wedges, concede the putt and hop on a plane for almost anywhere at a moment's notice. In my skill set I can boast of modest Management attributes and a propensity for a messy desk! Let's face it, I like working, I truly enjoy my job and I have never forgotten or taken for granted that it is a privilege afforded to few to be allowed to serve in the Foreign Service.

As I now risk becoming maudlin, let me say that not all runs to peaches and cream here in paradise. One of the few arrows in our quiver that we relied upon to entice officers to bid our positions were our differentials. Apart from the Service Needs Differential for officers volunteering to serve here for three years we also enjoy a Hardship Differential and a generous Cost of Living adjustment. This year, State in its infinite wisdom decided that those differentials should be reduced significantly. The wailing and gnashing of teeth at post could be heard far and wide. In State Dept. parlance, post pushed back and I was mildly surprised when we did so successfully. After convincing a senior official from the Allowances section to visit post on a 'fact finding tour' our differentials were restored and all is well in the kingdom.

This 12 foot crocodile lends new meaning to 'water hazard' on our local golf course.

Even without the differentials, I have a very good life here. I dive and play golf on the weekends. I get together with a group of like-minded gentlemen once a month to smoke cigars, sample fine single malt whiskeys and tell tale tales. There is a weekly poker game in which I play badly. The Merio is reserved for recreational outings by our officers almost every Saturday and Sunday. My apartment has a balcony overlooking the Coral Sea and the sunsets are quite spectacular. A trip to any other part of Papua New Guinea is like an excursion to another land due to the incredible diversity of geography, people and customs to be found here. Australia is only an hour away when 'island fever' hits and you need to get away. If you are serving or plan to serve in the Foreign Service, I encourage you to pencil Embassy Port Moresby into your career plans.

Storyboards are hand carved by the tribes in the Sepik region.

Our new embassy currently under construction has been redesigned twice to accommodate our growing community and will be a state of the art building in this city. As with all our new embassies, it will be highly secure yet designed to enhance the waterfront with an impressive 'South Pacific' look to it. It will feature solar panels to supplement city power, a water reclamation plant and plenty of green space. Post advocated strongly for changes in the design that we believe enhance the look and utility of the compound and many of our suggestions have been incorporated into the current architectural plans. I can see the construction site from the front door of my apartment and you can rest easy to know that I'm keeping an eye on things down there. I'm not too certain about which buildings are which but all that will become clearer, I'm sure, as they grow. Anyway, the site is there and lots of guys are doing construction type stuff so all seems well.

I have fewer than 40 weeks left to accomplish everything I wanted to do when I arrived. On Monday I intend to find my desk. I know it's under there somewhere!

She doesn't seem to be a big fan of cigars.