Saturday, November 28, 2015

Androgynous Declinations and Cross-Dressing Nouns

In many foreign languages, nouns have genders. But in Lithuanian, there are various categories of noun endings within each gender, all with their own declinations. Masculine nouns can end in -as, -us, -is, etc. Feminine nouns can end in -a, -ė, -is, etc. With six common endings x 12 common declensions (6 singular cases and 6 plural cases), there are 72 common endings I have to know. This actually wouldn't be too bad if there weren't so many other weird endings and exceptions.

For instance, you may have noticed above that the -is ending is both feminine and masculine. Actually, there are three possible declensions for -is nouns and no good way to know which is which just by looking at the word. I haven't even mentioned the peculiar nouns that do their own thing; there are just as many "special nouns" with unique, androgynous declinations as there are normal nouns.

Then there are the transvestite nouns. Nouns that are actually one gender, but dress up as the other gender. For example, the word for a male colleague (kolega) ends in -a, which is a feminine ending, and so it declines as a feminine noun. But it is, in fact, a masculine noun and therefore requires an adjective in the masculine form.

When it comes to gender-bending people, I'm of the "live and let live" mindset. But when it comes to grammar rules, masculine nouns should behave masculinely and feminine nouns should behave femininely. I'm old-fashioned that way.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Unfurling the Flag and the Welcome Mat

On this blog, I’ve avoided commentary on controversial topics or on anything that touches on policy. But with all the uninformed chatter about Syrian refugees floating around the interwebs in the wake of the Paris bombings, I feel compelled to share my perspective on the matter.

I understand the worry and fear many people have. Although we are very good at tracking and/or stopping people who wish to do us harm from entering the U.S., we can’t catch 100% of the bad guys and, as we’ve seen, it only takes a few bad guys to do some very bad things. It is natural to react to the tragedy in France with fear. But I would argue that it is not the American way to let fear turn into paranoia.

Unlike Europe, where tens of thousands of refugees are pouring into the continent with virtually no screening, the U.S. has the luxury of only accepting refugees after a lengthy and thorough vetting process. It can take 1-2 years (or longer) for a Syrian refugee to actually arrive in America. Is there a statistical possibility that a wanna-be terrorist could make his way to a refugee camp, get on the long waiting list, make it through the vetting process, and finally get to America many months, or even years, later? Yes. But the chances of him wanting to go that route to get to America are very slim.

Shutting down the Syrian refugee resettlement program won’t really make America safer. In fact, not tending to the refugee crisis could make things worse, as my former boss Ambassador Ryan Crocker wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

Left unaddressed, the strain (of the humanitarian crisis) will feed instability and trigger more violence across the region, which will have consequences for U.S. national security.

We can protect our country and security without becoming the ugly, hateful country ISIS portrays us to be. We are better than that.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Crawl, Walk, Run

Five weeks into language training and I'm feeling pretty good. Surprisingly good. I know I'll hit a wall soon, but for now I'm enjoying learning a new language. This is my third language training at FSI. The pain and struggle of the first two have led to a self-awareness that benefits me tremendously this time around. A few things I've learned that are helping me get through the first two months:

I try to speak the way a 5 year old would. If I can forget that I'm an intelligent, well-educated 40-something year old woman, it takes the sting out of the early weeks of language training. It's much easier to talk about a news story the way a 5 year old would talk about it, than to try to talk about the news the way an educated adult would.

I'm a very literal person and I tend to say only what I mean to say. But nobody cares about what I actually did over the weekend. So instead of trying to say what I really *want* to say, I practice saying what I *can* say, even if it means making stuff up.

I am impatient by nature and a perfectionist - two things that may make for a good Foreign Service Officer, but make for a terrible language student. I know now that during the first few weeks, I'm supposed to be awful. I will get better.

I cannot go directly to a 3/3 level of proficiency, no matter how many flashcards I memorize or how much grammar I study. You have to get to a 1/1 before you can get to a 2/2. As much as it pains me to say it - Aim low (at least for now)!

And in my most profound bit of self-analysis, I understand that listening comprehension is the last thing that comes to me, long after writing, speaking, and reading. So there's no point stressing out now when I watch the news clips on YouTube and cannot understand anything.

Naturally, this advice doesn't hold true at the end of language training. At some point, I will have to be able to say what I *want* to say. I can't very well change U.S. policy to suit my language proficiency. But for now, I'll stick with crawling.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Language Students

You know a Foreign Service officer is in language training when...

* She carries flash cards with her wherever she goes.

* She gets a rush buying colored index cards and Sharpie pens.

* She appears to be mumbling to herself all the time.

* There are sticky notes with foreign words plastered over everything in her apartment.

* She often stares into space with a glassy-eyed expression while silently conjugating verbs or declining nouns and adjectives in her head.

* She often swears like a sailor when she fails to successfully conjugate verbs or decline nouns and adjectives in her head.

* As her proficiency in the foreign language improves, her proficiency in English... goes badder.

* She goes to bed at 9:00 pm in order to get to class on time at 7:40 am.

and you know the dreaded language test is approaching when...

* She seriously considers replacing her morning tea with a strong screwdriver.

* She spends an unusual amount of time developing sophisticated ideas about counterterrorism, entrepreneurship, and trade agreements.

Best of luck to all those in language training!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Pass(port) it Forward

It's unusual for incompetence to result in something beneficial. But it actually happened to me. At the State Department, of all places.

My diplomatic passport was set to expire in a few months. I submitting an application for a new one; however, the woman at the window told me, in lieu of my travel orders, my HR Officer would have to submit a form on my behalf. I emailed my HRO (after spending considerable time tracking down who my HRO is supposed to be). She replied that because I will be in training for a year, I don't need a diplomatic passport. Request denied.

I relayed this information to the passport office and requested they return my soon-to-expire passport and cancel my application. They emailed me to confirm that's what I wanted to do. Yes, I assured them. A few days later I went to the passport office to pick up my old passport. In the envelope was my old passport - cancelled. And a brand new passport good for 5 years. Huzzah! Asking no questions, I quickly grabbed the passports and walked out.

Perhaps it wasn't incompetence that led to my getting a new passport without all the "required" documentation. Part of me would like to think a civil servant working in a windowless room in some unknown annex building took pity on a stranger with incomplete paperwork.

I know some State people whose entire worldview would collapse in on itself if they discovered that the standard forms we are taught to revere don't, in fact, hold magical powers. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Stars vs. Stripes

Last week was the Congressional baseball game where Democrats and Republicans battled on the field for charity. I have an idea. Next year I'd like to see bipartisan teams. Instead of blue Democrats vs. red Republicans, let's have the Stars vs. the Stripes. One team composed of congressmen from states west of the Mississippi, the other team from states east of the Mississippi. This would be a symbolic gesture where Congress can put country ahead of party.

I know, wishful thinking. Don't bother with the cynical comments.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

If Only

TO:            Caliphate Public Relations Department

FROM:      Caliphate Legal Department

RE:            New Policies and Procedures

To avoid legal repercussions or other unintended  consequences of the Islamic State's public communications, the Legal department has developed the following policies and procedures that must be followed before engaging in any public communications, whether through social or traditional media.

Only factual statements that can be independently confirmed will be considered "official" statements.

All public communications, to include photos, images, video, and audio must abide by international copyright laws and accessibility guidelines.

To ensure that public communications do not offend the target audience or secondary audiences, a rigorous clearance process must be observed. It is necessary to clear all communications with every bureau, agency, or office that might have a stake in the subject matter. We realize this may mean that provocative or controversial messages may end up watered down to the point of becoming bland and meaningless.

Be careful not to violate the terms and conditions of the online platforms used to disseminate public communications. The enemy is not afraid to use lawyers indiscriminately.

Do not use the term "coalition." Doing so legitimizes the enemy. An interagency working group is currently evaluating pejorative names to use instead. We expect final resolution on this matter in 6-8 months.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Friday, May 8, 2015

And yet, we are a global superpower

So apparently I'm the first person in the history of the State Department to renew a badge. At least, that's how it felt. I foolishly allotted only 20 minutes for the process because I made an appointment, filled out the form in advance, and it seemed straightforward. (Go ahead and laugh.) My first attempt to submit the form resulted in having to run back upstairs to get a different signature.

Side note: You cannot get from the basement badging office to my second floor office by taking the stairs near the badging office - the door leading from the stairwell to the second floor doesn't have a handle or doorknob - and the elevator near the badging office takes you to a part of the second floor that you literally cannot escape from.

My second attempt to submit the form resulted in me having to go the second floor again and get a signature from the security office for my super secret badge. The security office couldn't find any record of me. Not very encouraging. Every person in the office was scouring file cabinets trying to find my file. At one point someone asked, "Have you looked under H for 'Heather'?" After 20 minutes the file was still missing so a workaround was discovered.

And yet, somehow, we are a global superpower. Go figure.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Maybe I'm Not Completely Dead Inside

Since starting this assignment, I've spent countless hours reading about violent extremists, their atrocities, their motivations, their propaganda. I've seen shocking images of their brutality. For the most part I've been able to compartmentalize the horror. But the gruesome images of the Jordanian pilot being burned alive really got to me. It's a profound reminder that what we're trying to accomplish matters. It's not just fodder for our EERs. So while I probably won't stop complaining about the State Department's bureaucracy and silly policies, I also need to remember the people who are affected by what we do. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Recall Message

You know that moment before you click Send when you hold your breath and say a quick prayer to the email gods that you didn't miss an embarrassing typo? When your stomach tightens because your dissemination list is hundreds of people long, including Secretary Big Shot and General Honcho? And you know at this point you've read the draft so many times that your fuzzy brain would not be able to spot a mistake, no matter how glaring?  And even though you've gotten all the clearances, it's your name in the From field. So after staring at the draft email for what seems like hours, you say, "screw it!" and click Send. Then immediately see that you misspelled a word in the subject line. Dammit.