Crisis

Blogging has been a good thing for me, it helps me sort out my thoughts about becoming an EFM and my wife becoming a diplomat.  Thinking about moving across the planet to a place where most people don’t speak my language for two years, then moving someplace else entirely, repeat for the next twenty years.  Thinking about maybe not working anymore, because it’s not allowed or not possible.  This is sort of like visiting a counselor once a week, only I’m basically talking to myself here.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I realized I was in a very bad mood, upset in general and not really sure why.  It happened to be on a Friday, the day I work on this blog.  And I realized, while talking to Diplowife, that I was really not handling this EFM thing well.  It was after swearing-in day, and my EFM responsibilities were non-existent for a while and I went back to my normal daily routine, working in IT.  But I realized I was feeling a lot of anxiety about my new role as an EFM, and it was starting to really get to me.

At lot of it had to do with my uncertain job prospects in China.  As I’ve mentioned before, I won’t be able to work there, at least not doing anything like I do here in the states (IT consulting).  I’ve switched jobs before, of course, but the uncertainty of this new life was causing stress.  The unofficial motto of the Foreign Service is “It Depends”.  That is, every situation is different, and nobody can give you a simple answer to any question.  Uncertainty abounds in that job.  Several of Diplowife’s colleagues have already switched assignments, just two months after Flag Day.  I’m pretty sure we’ll wind up in Shenyang next spring, but you never know what could happen.

Anyway, I didn’t (and still don’t) know what I’ll do in Shenyang.  Not working at all seems crazy to me, I’m only 43 years old, hardly old enough for retirement.  It’s true that Diplowife’s salary will be plenty to support us, but what does that make me?  It’s not like we have kids to take care of, so I wouldn’t be a respectable stay-at-home parent.  I don’t think anyone would be convinced that staying home to take care of our cats is a worthy occupation.  I suspect Diplowife would be pleased if I stayed home and pursued my interests in baking and charcuterie full-time.

So, should I take a part-time entry-level job at the Shenyang Consulate?  I like the idea of going to work with Diplowife, and getting to know her colleagues.  But the salary would be pretty bad, and the actual work looks pretty uninspiring.  From time to time, I’ve been tempted to quit the IT racket and get into software development of some kind, and two years of home study in Shenyang could get me to the point where I could do it for a living.  Diplowife and I talked this over, and I felt a lot better afterwards.

First world problems, right?  Maybe so, but try to make time for yourself, and be aware that a giant upheaval of your life can really get to you.  Pay attention to how you feel.  Talk to your spouse, they are probably stressed out too, and it feels good to talk about it.  Looking forward, I still feel anxiety about Shenyang, but I know Diplowife will be there with me and she’ll support me as a stay-at-home cat dad, or whatever I wind up doing.

How to find work as an EFM in China*

* I don’t actually know how to find work as an EFM in China

Finding a job is on my mind today, you’ll see why later.  But let me back up a bit.  Normally, EFMs are allowed to work in their host countries without a work visa, and likewise, other countries’ EFMs are allowed to do the same when posted here in the US. In China, that is not the case, for reasons as yet unexplained to me.  I think it’s basically assumed that China does what it wants for its own reasons, and don’t bother asking why.  So I can’t work for a Chinese company, or as a part of the Chinese economy (I can’t open a hot dog stand in Shenyang).

But is that a big problem really?  I mean, what job could I do, working for the Chinese?  I don’t speak Mandarin, so maybe I could get a job as an ESL teacher, that’s a popular expat job. I work in IT, so I was hoping I could find something in that field in Shenyang.  During the Spouse Orientation, they encouraged us to reach out to various DoS resources to find work.  So I emailed the Shenyang CLO, along with the FLO here in DC. You can find contact info for FLO here: http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/ and your FSO spouse should be able to put you in touch with the post’s CLO.

After some back-and-forth with the CLO and FLO, I got back the Shenyang Consulate’s FAMER.  That’s FAmily Member Employment Report.  This has listings for all the open positions in the Consulate for EFMs.  Most of the jobs weren’t too exciting, things like HR Assistant, and Escort.  The pay is about what you would expect for entry-level jobs.  And most of the jobs are part-time, so you’re making half of entry-level.  But wait, there’s an “IM Assistant” job, which is sort of IT-related.  Only it’s really a mail room job with some computer stuff thrown in.

But there’s another resource, the Global Employment Advisors, or GEAs.  They’re scattered around the globe, each assigned a region of the world and they help people like me find jobs.  I talked to the one in charge of the Shenyang area, and she didn’t know of any jobs for me, but she helped clarify the rules for working in China.  For instance, it’s OK for me to telework for an American company.  And self-employment is OK, as long as I’m buying/selling from non-Chinese people.  So maybe my dream of becoming a YouTube star can come true (probably not).

So it seemed like the IM Assistant was my best option.  So I wrote to the HR Officer in the Consulate, and he suggested I apply to a different job, that wasn’t in the FAMER.  It’s a systems assistant, which means supporting the Consular software system.  It’s pretty good pay, but only part time.  But better than the mail room!  So I applied, and interviewed and they were all set to hire me. Great!  I’ll need to go through security clearance, which can take a while, but I’m on the way to working for Uncle Sam.

Until this morning, when I found out the job wasn’t available after all, and they shouldn’t have let me apply in the first place.  So I’m back to square one.  Yay, bureaucracy.  But along the way, I made contacts at the Consulate, among them the CLO, HR Officer and the IT boss. And I met somebody at the FLO, and learned about the GEA system.  And learned about Foreign Service Specialists, which deserves it’s own blog post.

And I discovered a potential wrinkle in this whole system: Diplowife is in the Management cone, and part of Management’s job is supervising the IT guys at post.  Which would include me, if I ever found a job.  And people are not allowed to supervise their spouses.  So maybe this isn’t the best idea in the world.  She’s working in the Consular section for this tour, so it doesn’t matter in Shenyang, but it could come up at future posts.

So anyway, I’m in a good position in case another IT job opens up.  Meanwhile, I need to figure out what to with myself once I get to Shenyang if I can’t find a job.

Where are we going?

Oh right, Shenyang China.  Let’s be honest, I knew virtually nothing about this place when we were putting our bid list together.  It’s in northeast China, up in Manchuria near the North Korea border. Near Russia, too.  Wasn’t it on that one episode of No Reservations?  No, that was Harbin.  So it’s cold, lots of factories and pollution?  Got it.

Obviously, after Flag Day, my curiosity about Shenyang became somewhat elevated.  Wikipedia had lots to say, but it didn’t really help me.  My concerns were more mundane and personal.  Where would live?  Would there be food that I like?  I’m happy to eat at Chinese restaurants on occasion, but not every day.  How would we get around town; i.e.would we need a car?  Are there other people there that I might become friends with?

As usual, Google saved the day. I created a personal map to keep track of every place in Shenyang I need to know about.  I added a few obvious landmarks like the airport, the two main train stations, the US Consulate.  Then I searched for western-style grocery stores in Shenyang, and it turns out there are several options, including a few Carreforts (European supermarket chain).  I found all the State Department housing options and marked them on my map.  I added the local IMAX theater, bowling alley, IKEA, the main library, that kind of stuff.

But Shenyang expat blogs were a real goldmine for filling out my map, and knowledge of Shenyang. That’s where I found out about the pubs and restaurants that serve decent Western-style food, and cater to expats.  Not to mention bookstores with an English-language section, interesting shopping areas (Shenyang apparently has a street dedicated to baking equipment!), must-see tourist sites, and handy tips for living there.  I know, I know, I should embrace the local cuisine and culture.  And believe me, my wife will ensure that happens.  But I really need to know where to get a good pizza, bread and beer (not necessarily in that order) to feel at ease in a new city.

I’ve looked for any semblance of a local gaming scene, that is tabletop role-playing games, or war games, and have come up dry.  Expat bloggers seem really focused on either raising their kids, or going out to sports bars to watch soccer.  So we’ll see about that.  They say there are no bad posts.  If a post doesn’t have something you need to be happy, find some other way to be happy.  Something will turn up.

Have a look at my Shenyang map here:

After A-100

After swearing-in day was over, my role as an EFM was basically on hold for a while.  I still work full-time, so attending language classes at FSI isn’t possible.  I did request access to Mandarin study materials, and FSI set me up with an account to log into Mango Languages and study in my free time.  It’s a great system, I can study at my own pace, using their website, or their phone/tablet app. But, I had to ask my diplomat wife to help set this all up, along with many other State Department-related tasks.

Speaking of that: I’m new at this EFM job, and I try to be as self-sufficient as possible, but a lot of information I need is on a website that non-employees can’t access.  So I’ll need to ask Diplowife for help, like she isn’t busy enough already.  On the other hand, there’s no rush for anything I need, we’ve got over eight months before we move.  But I’m glad there are people at State like the Family Liaison Office (FLO) and at the Shenyang Consulate like the Community Liaison Office (CLO) who are great at helping EFM’s with our issues.  They are helping me find and apply for work at post, which deserves its own blog entry.

As for Diplowife, she has started Consular training, which lasts another six weeks.  Then she begins several months of language training.  Meanwhile, we’re trying to stay in contact with her classmates and socialize when we can.  An obstacle for us is that people like Diplowife, who was already living in DC when she was hired, are considered “local hires”.  Local hires are not moved to the free housing down near FSI, so there’s little financial incentive to move before we’re shipped off to China.  So most of her classmates live near each other, and we tend to miss out on most social events, living up here in Maryland.

However, Diplowife’s classmates that are also heading to China have formed their own sub-group and we got together for dinner at a local Chinese restaurant a few weeks ago.  As always, it was nice to meet them and make new friends.  I gotta keep developing my EFM corridor reputation, you know.  Hopefully we’ll get together every month or so until everybody is transferred.  Once we’re all in China, we can all travel around the country and crash in each others’ guest rooms.  I hope to order my food in Mandarin next time we meet.  Or at least greet a few people and thank the waiter.

So that’s how things are going these days.  Diplowife is continuing her training at FSI, but the stressful undercurrent has faded now that Flag Day is over and the pressures of the A-100 class are behind her.  My meager obligations as an EFM are in the background now, and I’m focusing on learning Mandarin, and learning about Shenyang and China.  I’m looking for work in Shenyang, and considering my role as an EFM.  Much more to come…

Swearing-in Day

Recapping continues…

The last day of A-100 is Swearing-in Day, which takes place at the main State Department building in Washington.  Like Flag Day, family and friends are able to attend, so I attended.  This time I was on my own, none of our family could attend.  I came down to Washington around noon, so I could have lunch with Diplowife at the State Department’s cafeteria.  Again, getting in the building means going through airport-like security, so be prepared for that. The cafeteria there is extensive, but the food was nothing special.

After that we went to a big auditorium for the ceremony.  The new FSO’s all sat in the front few rows, along with new members of the State Department’s civil service who were being sworn in at the same time.  Much like Flag Day, there were several State Department luminaries in attendance on stage, and several speeches.  They usually try to get the Secretary of State to attend, but he was busy elsewhere.  Just as well, one of the Undersecretaries was there and gave a very inspiring speech. He clearly has a lot of confidence in the State Department’s future, with new officers like my amazing wife running things.

After that, the new officers were sworn in, and all came up on stage for  a group photo.  Diplowife’s A-100 class was so large they couldn’t all fit, so the photo may not turn out very well.  So Diplowife was now an official Foreign Service Officer!  I took a lot of pictures, mostly of her, then we wandered around the building and took more pics.  There is a big lobby area with flags from around the world, for all the countries that have US embassies and consulates.  They had just reinstalled the flag of Cuba recently, which was nice to see.  There is also a little museum for some of the DoS’s historical artifacts.

Then we went downstairs to see the little shopping area.  They have two gift shops full of State Department and patriotic swag, plus a used book store, hair salon, post office and Starbucks.  I got some State Department cuff links, useful for DoS parties in the future.  That day, a group of Scandinavian diplomats were there meeting with Secretary Kerry and others, so there were a lot of extra security guards around the main entrance.  When we were leaving, they thought I was a Danish diplomat, which I took as a compliment.

After that, we went to a happy hour in Georgetown with Diplowife’s classmates.  I like meeting them, they’re usually very bright and personable, as you might expect. Then we walked around Georgetown a while, and got some early dinner at Martin’s Tavern, a popular place for politicians and journalists. We sat at Madeleine Albright’s favorite table, which we took as a good omen.  Unfortunately, I ruined the mood by getting butter all over my best suit somehow.  I’ll be more careful in the future.

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A-100 Winds Down, and Cookies are Obtained

(Still recapping, nearly caught up)

A couple days after Flag Day is part 2 of Spouse Orientation, aka “Ready to Roll” at FSI.  This day’s events focused less on the bid list, since you already know where you’ll be going.  Instead, I spent the morning in Diplowife’s classroom, watching lectures on several topics, some not really relevant to me.  But it was interesting to see how she spends her time.  As always, I’m very impressed by Diplowife’s classmates.

After lunch, we learned all about passports, and how to get one. I already had one, but we also covered how to get a Diplomatic Passport, and what we’ll do with them.  Basically, they’re for entering and leaving your post country.  But you’ll still need a regular passport for vacations and other trips.

Then, we learned more about getting to post, pack outs, and how mail works.  The Consulate in Shenyang has what’s called “DPO”, or Diplomatic Post Office.  Essentially, our mail will go to an address in the DC area, then it’s forwarded to our post.  Easy!  Except it takes a few weeks each way, and some items aren’t allowed to be sent to DPO.  Not every Consulate and Embassy has DPO, so we’re fortunate.  Other posts have to rely on the diplomatic pouch, which is even more restrictive that DPO, and using the post country’s own mail service.

Then we spend a couple hours with three experienced EFM’s, who shared their experiences with my classmates and me.  One of them is a CLO, or Community Liaison Officer, a person whose job it is to act as a go-between for the State Department and EFM’s.  Lots of good info here.

After that, my day was basically over, but Diplowife was still busy with a mock diplomatic reception her class was putting on.  They invited a bunch of local diplomats to FSI, brought in some leftover food from the Flag Day reception and had a party.  All in the name of practicing how to behave at official functions.  I got to participate as an honorary guest, which was fun, and I got to meet more of Diplowife’s classmates.  And what do I find there, but cookies!  I knew it, I’ve heard people call FSO’s “cookie pushers” and here was the proof.  Sweet, delicious vindication.

Seriously, I’m not sure this day was all that helpful to me, most of the info in the lectures I could have found online.  However, there is an important concept to learn about in the Foreign Service called “corridor reputation”.  That’s what the other diplomats think of you, and you better have a good one if you expect anyone to help you out or stick their neck out for you. The reputation is built up over the diplomat’s career, based on how they handle themselves professionally, how dependable they are, how easy they are to get along with, that sort of thing.  This reputation can make the diplomat’s career much easier, or much harder.

And here’s something I didn’t know at the start of the day: EFM’s have their own corridor reputation to think about.  The Foreign Service is a small community, and words gets around about good and bad EFM’s.  You need to have a good reputation if you want to succeed as an EFM.  Navigating the State Department’s bureaucracy is difficult, and it pays to have friends you can call upon.  So get out there and meet people, be friendly and helpful.  You never know when you’ll be stuck in a post without a job and could use an insider that can get you a job inside the mission.  Or knows the arcane rules about ordering your favorite cereal from the Embassy’s commissary.  Or can watch your cats when you go on a vacation or medical leave for a week.  So coming to FSI for Spouse Orientation, or any other excuse to meet with your fellow EFM’s, is a good idea.

Personally, I’m going to try to have a reputation as that guy who always brings cookies to Consulate parties for some reason.

Flag Day!

Getting closer to present day…

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The big screens welcome us to the 186th A-100 class’ Flag Day

It’s here, it’s finally here!  The day we’ve been waiting for, the day we find out where on Earth we’ll spend our first tour.  My parents, Diplowife’s sister and her husband all came to DC for the big event, so even if the news was bad, we would be in good company.

It was early May, and uncharacteristically cool and wet for this time of year.  The rain was an unwelcome reminder that I don’t own a raincoat the fits over a suit.  My little umbrella would have to do.  I met my parents downtown, and we took the Metro and FSI shuttle to the big event at FSI in Arlington.  Diplowife’s sister, her husband and a friend came too.  It takes time to get through security at FSI, it’s like going to the airport and the Vistors’ Center’s entrance got crowded.  The rain didn’t help, there’s not much room in the security area, and there’s no covered porch or anything outside.

We eventually made our way to a big auditorium, with FSO’s sitting in the front rows and the audience in the rear. There were a few speeches and introductions at the start, but I was a nervous wreck and barely heard any of it.  Then, one by one, they projected a country’s flag on the big screens, called out an FSO’s name and the city they were going to.  The FSO stood up to receive a handshake, tiny flag and their orders.  They were told to smile and act happy NO MATTER WHAT.  They’re supposed to be diplomatic about this, even if they have to go someplace they hate.  It’s good practice for their new jobs.

The FSO’s were called out in no discernible order, so it was extra nerve-wracking not knowing when Diplowife’s name would come up.  I was convinced we were going to Mexico, it’s a very popular place to send rookies.  So every time the Mexican flag showed up, my blood pressure spiked.  Not to mention all the times the flag of certain countries appeared, countries that won’t let us take our cats, were full of religious fanatics, or had horrible weather.  One guy got New Zealand, a plum assignment (for non-cat owners), another got Paris.  Drinks are on them.

About halfway through the list, the flag of China flashed on the screen.  Diplowife’s name was read aloud (mispronounced).  SHENYANG, CHINA.  My dad gave me a high five and my mom and Diplowife’s sister both grabbed my attention and congratulated me.  I assume Diplowife got up and received her flag and orders, but I was in a fog.  Shenyang?  Well, China wasn’t my first pick, but Diplowife lived there and can guide me through it.  The language may as well be Martian, but I’m sure I can learn enough to get by.

My dad asked me if I was happy with the post.  I said I didn’t know.  I barely knew anything about it, just the general area (Northeast China, near the North Korean border), and it’s supposed to be very cold.  I looked up its Wikipedia entry and my dad and I read it together.  Seems like a bleak place, little culture to speak of, and bad Internet access.  Western food is hard to come by, and expensive.  It’s a “hardship” post, because of the cold weather and pollution.  But wait, it gets really hot and humid there in the summer, worse than Washington DC even.  I wasn’t feeling all that great about this turn of events.

After all the flags were distributed, I got up and congratulated Diplowife in person.  She was crying tears of happiness, and had been crying ever since her name was called.  I realized then, that no matter how I felt, I would make this work.  Her dream had come true.  China it was and China it will be.

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They have cookies in China, right?

The bidding process

Yes, still recapping…

Soon after starting the A-100 class, new officers get a copy of the bid list.  In this case, it’s a list of about 60 cities around the world where the Department of State has an embassy or consulate that needs one or more entry-level officers.  The officers are supposed to group the list into three categories: low, medium & high.  Low posts are places you don’t want to go, and State usually obliges unless there’s a dire need that nobody else can reasonably fill.  High posts are for places you really want to go. Medium are the rest.

We got to put 15 posts in the low category, and 15 in the high category, rest are medium.  For us, we had to immediately weed out any posts that either don’t allow our cats, or make it too difficult, with quarantines and/or fees.  For example, Jamaica doesn’t allow any pets, unless they’re from the UK.  And New Zealand would put our cats in quarantine for weeks and charge thousands of dollars of fees.  So, places like that pretty much filled our “Low” group.

Highs were for posts with agreeable weather (Diplowife and I both loathe hot and humid places), and reasonably good Internet (for me to either telecommute, or stay entertained if I’m unemployed the whole time).  Diplowife wants to build a career on focusing on places like Eastern Europe and the former USSR, so we put posts like Warsaw, Bucharest, Belgrade, Moscow and Modova in the high group.  Also, Shenyang China, because she knows Chinese and it’s pretty cold there.  And Paris was high, because, well, Paris.

Information about all these places, some of which I had never heard of, can be found at FSI’s Overseas Briefing Center (OBC) that I mentioned last post.  Don’t miss out on this resource!  There is a lot of information here, but you can focus on what really matters (in our case, the pet situation), and figure out how to bid in not much time at all.

Before turning in the list, Diplowife and I had a short meeting with her Career Development Officer (CDO), to talk about our bidding strategy.  The CDO’s then all get together and hash out who goes where, and they really do the best they can to make as many officers happy as possible.  Unhappy officers wind up quitting after a few tours, and nobody wants that.  Anyway, don’t miss this meeting!  This is your time to speak up for yourself as an EFM and make sure your needs are not ignored.

Personally, I was not at all sure (I’m still not, by the way) what I will do at post.  Will I work at the embassy?  Work at home?  Volunteer?  Study and pick up some new skills? Play video games in my pajamas?  I figured having reliable Internet would make telecommuting possible, and if I decided to learn new skills that would also be helpful.  And let’s face it, I’m pretty unhappy when the Internet’s not there for me.  Diplowife and I are in agreement about the weather, we think we can fill a valuable niche in the Foreign Service: the couple that doesn’t mind going to cold, desolate places.

So, we turned in our bid list, and the waiting began for Flag Day, when everybody finds out where they’re going.  My job isn’t exactly stimulating these days, so I have a lot of time on my hands, time to get nervous about being sent to some humid inferno with no Internet that doesn’t allow cats.  On the other hand, Flag Day isn’t that far off, and our families are coming for the event, so we have that to look forward to!  But I may have an ulcer by then.

 

 

A-100 began, and I had something to do already

(Still in recap mode)

Diplowife started her A-100 class a couple of months ago, which was very exciting for both of us.  But more exciting for me was Spouse Orientation, on the Thursday of her first week at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI).  Spouse Orientation was a day-long event where spouses of the officers-in-training come to FSI to learn all about our role in the foreign service, and how this new lifestyle works.

We drove to FSI together, even though there’s a free shuttle from the nearby Metro station.  I recommend not driving there, as traffic in Arlington is really bad, especially at rush hour.  Your spouse basically walks right in, but the spouses have to go through security like at the airport, and get a flimsy visitor’s badge.  Once in, you have the run of the place, but there’s not much time to wander.  FSI resembles a small college campus, park-like with brick buildings dotting the landscape.  It’s easy to get lost.

Once inside FSI with my visitor’s badge, I went to the orientation classroom and joined about 25 or so spouses there.  Surprisingly small group, given Diplowife’s A-100 class had nearly a 100 people, but I think a lot of spouses were still living back home, wherever that may be.  I forget sometimes that “local hires” like ourselves are the exception, not the norm.  We spent an hour or so getting to know each other and breaking the ice.  There were a large number of foreign-born spouses in the group, which is apparently pretty common in the foreign service.  There were more husbands than wives in my class, and most of us were child-free.  I expected a lot more wives, and more people with kids, but again, they might be too busy to come to orientation.

The day consisted of  a series of talks given by various foreign service officers, FSI employees, EFM’s and foreign service specialists. They covered a lot of interesting and important topics.  We learned about how to research where we’re going, how to get there, how to find work (or not), and how to go to the doctor once there. We got to visit the Overseas Briefing Center, kind of a mini library where officers and EFM’s can research different posts they might be assigned to.  I read up on Chinese and Mexican posts, because those were the most likely places we would go.

Orientation exposed us to a lot of important info, so I’m glad I went. It was good to meet the other EFM’s, we have our own community, alongside the officers’, and it’s a good idea to get started early.  The orientation was run by some terrific people, EFM’s mostly, and it helped ease my anxiety about joining the foreign service.

Plus, it was fun to see the place Diplowife spends most of her waking hours, and the people she works with.

 

First post, new blog

I feel like I should post something clever and memorable here, for my first post.  But, waiting to come up with something like that could take a while.  So here we are.

I created this blog because the Foreign Service blogosphere is lacking somebody like me: the childless trailing husband.  During the weeks and months leading up to Diplowife’s new job I looked all over for bloggers like me, trying to find guidance.  I found a lot of good advice and information, and lots of blogs dealing with issues related to children and other topics not relevant to me, so here I am, trying to contribute something, and hopefully help other guys in my demographic.

To summarize things so far, my wife and I moved to DC in 2012, to kick off her post PhD career, hopefully in the Foreign Service, but she would have been happy in several other places.  As it turned out, she got the call in February 2016 to join up, and away we went.  Since then she’s graduated from the A-100 training class, and is currently in training for the job she’ll do at her first posting.  After that training comes the language training, so we’re not going anywhere for a while.

Meanwhile, I’m still working in the IT racket, up in Gaithersburg, the slightly rednecky DC suburb.  I’ll probably stay working here until we have a couple months before shipping out, then I’ll try to get into an introductory language class so I won’t be completely unprepared.  I’m also looking into job and career options once we get to post, which is a very complicated topic.

So for now, welcome to my new blog, and I hope it’s useful and/or entertaining.