The Death of a Foreign Service Officer

When I heard the initial reports that a State Department employee had been killed in Afghanistan, I sighed. And when I read the name and what I felt was a thoughtful message from the Secretary, I did what I suspect many of us do these days: I looked up the officer’s name on Facebook, guessing that someone young and in a place like Afghanistan was bound to have an account, a presence, through which she would share her experiences with her friends. I clicked on her name, saw her face, and realized that I knew her.

Or perhaps I didn’t know her, but only knew that I had seen her before. Seen her in the half-remembered days in-between my own assignments overseas. Seen her somewhere in the District or in Arlington at a ritualistic gathering of FSOs in a rented corporate apartment, drinks scattered on poorly made tables of blond wood or on pool furniture badly in need of new paint.  Seen her from time among bottles of continually passed-on wine and bags of snacks from Trader Joe’s and vegetable dips from Whole Foods, or standing in line in cafeterias. What I knew as well were the rhythms of her life as a Foreign Service Officer, that we had likely shared the same locations (airports, baggage carousels, shuttle buses) and dislocations (first nights in strange lands, language struggles, loneliness).

That is what I think I recognized. What I am certain I recognized was the smile, the aura of the under-30 crowd, the disarming ordinariness (as opposed to banality) and eagerness of our newest public servants. That aura seems to me the norm now at Foggy Bottom, and in much of the country, and it’s probably a sign of my age as much as an indication of the lure of Washington itself.

The truth is I didn’t know her, and make all sorts of assumptions, but from the few pictures she had posted (that were too heartbreaking to look at closely), I felt that she enjoyed a good evening out at one of DC’s many ale houses, or on trips to far-off cities that had been made much closer by her job.

And I saw too her own words beneath a posting, saying that she was looking forward to “shenanigans” when she was back in DC for training this coming July.

Shenanigans. Perhaps best defined as the line between youth and one’s mid-30s.

It was then that her death hit home, for she was also an officer in a position similar to one I had been in in the not too distant past. When, I recall, I rode in helicopters across contested valleys, and walked among both friends and probable enemies in markets and crowded spaces. When I entered a caravan noting the armored weight of the vehicle doors or felt the unsatisfying vibrations as we lifted off the ground from an airbase. When I thought daily, despite the importance and thrill of the work I was doing, about the moment I would come home.

What was new for me today, reading of the sad incomplete events and seeing her face, was that I, at the ripe old age of 13 years in the Foreign Service, could have been the one who made the decision to send her on the assignment, a public school book donation project in a province away from the capital. I could have been the one to sit with her and other colleagues some days earlier to discuss the strategy, the visuals, the preparations and coordination with the local government. This is because I’ve become a manager as I’ve moved along my career, as is the custom in the Foreign Service, and it would have been my job to make daily assignments, to direct our support, and to mentor and advise newer colleagues, like her. This thought brought its own heaviness. And so this time, for me, it was not enough to post a brief Facebook comment, or only change my profile photo to the black ribbon that perhaps too easily replaces our true sorrow.

I have been returning often of late to essays that seem to mock us about our shortened attention spans, our lost ability to write and speak in meaningful words, and our habit of ingesting bits of information and then moving on too quickly.

But there are too many parallels in her death with my life.  And more importantly, there are likely people I love, or have loved, or who I simply call friends, who are an arbitrary moment away from a tragedy like this. This young woman, this Foreign Service Officer, the whole of us, deserve just a little bit more reflection.


São Paulo Sonidos #1 – John Coltrane – My Favorite Things

It’s none too original to link the sound of jazz to an uber urban setting like the one here in São Paulo. In much the same way, the idea of a Sunday morning run in the city’s major park was less than unique, and shared by numerous others who arrived from various locales to Parque Iberapuera.  Unlike path running along the Potomac, which tends to bore me with its ordered vistas, navigating the jigsaw of São Paulo’s streets provided an opportunity to get lost (I did) and discover small delights like a Sunday feria on a closed off street.

The trilling notes of John Coltrane’s saxophone in this take on My Favorite Things match the sidewalks cracked by immense tree roots, the etchings of gravel beneath my shoes, and the scrape of pull-along shopping carts on the pavement. Even on an early Sunday morning here, it’s hectic just beneath the surface.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

If you haven’t known trepidation (a disquieting fear, not the terror found in a book like The Shining) while reading, then you might want to pick up a copy of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Normally I wouldn’t write about a book while only halfway through it, but I am reading it so slowly that I’m not sure I’ll even finish anytime soon.

I’m not even sure it’s a novel. It is, rather, a meditation on inner and outer decay, on decline, loss, memory, and the gradual effacement of even the most extraordinary of things. I half expect the book itself to vanish or crumble between my fingers while I’m reading. Certainly it reminds me of a book I read earlier this year — Teju Cole’s Open City. Published a decade earlier, Austerlitz (so far) greets us in Belgium as Cole’s novel does, and also in Wales and in London. The settings are intensely and intimately described, yet the novel also seems to take place within Sebald’s memory. There’s a term I’m reminded of: “umwelt” — a German word often translated as “a self-centered world”. Weirdly, I began a short story titled “Umwelt”, also set in London, which has dragged on and on…

And it’s the passages about the inner workings of our selves that seem most familiar. Here, at length, is Austerlitz describing the process of writing and reading:

But now I found writing such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought such a sentence out, with the greatest effort, and written it down, than I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed….However much or little I had written, on a subsequent reading it always seemed so fundamentally flawed that I had to destroy it immediately and begin again.

As always, things seem connected. Between readings I’ve been listening repeatedly to the first track on what I think what may end up being one of 2011’s more under-appreciated break-up records. The same disquiet stirs.

Go ahead and be my world, and everything will be ok. Just hide there in plain sight, too big to see.

Not Honest. But True.

Throughout this year, between the endless mountains of packed snow and the minutes stuck at the same morning traffic lights, I find myself singing the final chorus of this song over and over, accompanied by my boys on occasion, and other times as if my insides are pouring over the steering wheel. And that gorgeous gorgeous trumpet line…”You let the devil in your home!”

So sad to miss their show here in August.

Typhoon | A Take Away Show from La Blogotheque on Vimeo.