Monday, May 25, 2015

Don't neglect your TSP!!

Fellow FM's!  Do not neglect your future!

Are you getting the most bang for your buck from the Thrift Savings Plan?  Just like a private sector 401k, the TSP is a way to save for your future and get FREE money from the USG by getting a matching contribution.

Not only should you be maxing out your TSP contribution each year, but you should sign up for one of the paid allocation guides.  For several years I had my TSP contributions spread evenly across the available funds.  I did ok, but I thought I could do better.

In the last year I discovered one of the paid allocation guides and I have seen my TSP value really move up.  For less than $150 per year, I get an email when funding allocations change.  I login to my TSP account and make the adjustments to my allocations.  Allocations change only a couple of times per year so there's no chasing the market.

I highly recommend investigating any of the paid TSP allocation services.  Google "TSP allocation" and you'll find the services!  Good luck!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The single worst line in the FAM!

"For the purposes of this policy, adequate housing is defined as that comparable to what an employee would occupy in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area, with adjustments for family size and locality abroad."
15 FAM 211.1

I hate this line.  I despise it.

Jesus said that if your eye causes you to sin you should pluck it out.  15 FAM 211.1 leads me to frequent profanity, but I can't pluck it from the FAM.

I suspect I'm not the only FM who has had some spoiled, self-entitled ding-dong try to justify why I should build a second medicine cabinet in his bathroom because "the FAM said our housing should be equivalent to Washington, DC."

"What do you mean I can't have extra towel hooks?  the FAM says"  BANG! BANG! BANG!

"Hi FM.  Can you come change my lightbulb?"

In Gabon I killed rats on weekly basis in my kitchen...occasionally with my bare hands.  The roof leaked, the power went out every couple of days, and the mosquitoes were tipped with malaria.  This is NOT Washington, DC this is the Foreign Service.....*FOREIGN* - that means NOT America.

I'm reading Mediterranean Winter by Robert Kaplan and ran across this bit...

Pretty boy thinks he's in America and has
never used a hammer and nail.
"Travel is work....Etymologically a traveler is one who suffers travail, a word deriving in its turn from Latin tripalium, a torture to rack the body.  Before the development of tourism, travel was conceived to be like study, and its fruits were considered to be the adornment of the mind and the formation of judgement."

I think some of my State Department colleagues have lost site of the unique opportunity that is the Foreign Service.  Instead of  using this job to learn about new cultures, absorb themselves in world history, to shape their mind - they're out for their own benefit and comfort.  How can be taken care of.  What can the job do for me?  But in fact, what they need is to feel the hurt.  Even if they are so softened that "hurt"means going without a second medicine cabinet for 2 years.

I can get a second medicine cabinet when I get back to the USA.  For now, I'll appreciate this job.  I'll happily live with a few rats and I'll get scared when the air raid siren goes off...I want to feel some discomfort.  This discomfort - this travail - should never be far from me because it's that feeling of difficulty that reminds me that I'm an American in a foreign land with a job to do...and reminds me of how good we have it back home.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The buck stops with me!

As the head of Jerusalem's Facility Management section I am responsible for what happens in my shop.  Although our successes (and failures) are a team effort - someone is ultimately accountable for FM...and that person is me.

When someone in FM screws up: makes a bad repair, leaves a mess at someone's house, is late for an appointment, whatever - that mistake is mine.  I never blame a technician in front of my colleagues or especially my boss.

The worst thing you can say is "I told Pete the Plumber to be there on time" or "Carl the Carpenter messed up.  I can't believe he did that."


When one of the FM guys messes up there is only person to blame and one answer to give...

"I'm sorry.  I'll look into it and we'll correct the problem."

You should never blame your subordinates for their routine mistakes, because to blame those below you suggests you don't have control over your section.  How can your boss see you as an effective supervisor if you don't take responsibility for what goes on under you leadership?

JFK summed up being a responsible manager after the Bay of Pigs when he said, "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan."

In other words, as President he was willing to take the fall for what happened on his watch.

I'd rather take the heat for one of my guys mistakes then to look like I don't run the FM shop effectively.  Criticizing a guys work must be done internally within FM, never in front of the boss.

Cover for your guys, don't throw them under the bus.  Your loyalty to them will translate into their loyalty for you because when YOU screw up they'll be there to bail you out.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Our recent visit to Petra, Jordan.

Just a 4 hour drive away from home....ok, 5 hours if you count the Israel/Jordan border..maybe 5.5 hours if the Jordan side is chaotic.  Either way - we can get there in less than a day and we can drive our personal car the whole way.  We've made 2 trips since we've been here in Jerusalem.

FM - Be careful about burning out.

I discovered the breaking point of my cultural sensitivity

When it comes to politics, religion, customs, cultures, etc...everyone in the Foreign Service learns to be overly sensitive.  Sensitive and careful to a fault if you ask me.  But I don't want to offend another culture.

In Thailand, I sat in with my staff at the annual visit by the Buddhist monks.  In Gabon, I bit my tongue when staff talked about being influenced by ghosts or African superstitions.  In Jerusalem, I'm deferential to my staff that goes to the mosque to pray on Fridays or to the guys who expect kosher food when we eat out.  Different languages, religions, dress, dance, music, politics...none of it phases me.  In fact - that's what makes this job so rich.

But I found my limit.  I've found an action that no matter how much I try to explain it away as a cultural difference - it offends me the point of rage.  And its actually with my fellow Americans.

Yes, something a select group of Americans do here in Israel that drives me insane to the point of profanity.

What is it you ask?  The simple act of shaking my hand.

Ultra-Orthadox Jewish women will not shake a man's hand because they believe that touching a man is the first step in sexual relations.  These are married women, Americans, my countrymen, speaking the same language, loving mom/flag/apple pie, they vote in US elections, they have US passports but their ultra-Orthadox faith keeps them form performing the most basic American greeting.  In America we shake hands...that's what we do.  That's how we greet each other.  Firm grip, look in the eye, multiple hand pumps....that's how American's meet and say good bye.

We don't bow, we don't wai, we don't touch foreheads.  We shake Americans.

Do you seriously think that with my wife and kids standing next to me and your husband next to you that shaking my hand is a precursor to sex?  Are you serious?

I can understand a native Israeli -Jewish woman doing this, but an American?  It insults me everytime and it will always offend me.  You don't want to shake my hand?  Get out of my house, please.

See this excerpt I found about American greetings:

"American greetings are generally quite informal. This is not intended to show lack of respect, but rather a manifestation of the American belief that everyone is equal.  The greeting between men is often a handshake and between women, a hug."

It didn't say anything about meeting men/women, but the implication is that there is informal physical contact between Americans as "a manifestation of the American belief that everyone is equal."  That's an incredibly profound statement about American culture.  We are equal.

I shake hands with every color, race, sex, poor, rich, whatever because there is an underlying cultural belief that we are all of equal value as people.  When an American, ultra-Orthodox woman won't shake my hand she is suggesting we are not equal, she's somehow cleaner than me.....not that she is trying to stay sexually pure.  I won't tolerate it.  You do that to me, get out of my house or keep walking because we're done here.

And to clarify, this is not a clear-cut rule from God in the Torah - this is rabbinical commentary from the Talmud.  See below if you don't believe me.

Don't Take it Personally
A Touchy Subject
Opinions on Touching

Monday, May 11, 2015

Remember to volunteer at Post!

All work and no play makes Chris a dull to keep me from being insufferably boring, I occasionally answer the call and volunteer to help with other sections.  You should, too.

What can you do as an FM to step out of the day-to-day routine of just fixing stuff?

  • Agree to be on an EER review panel.
  • Volunteer for Post's English language hour to help local kids with English.
  • Sign up to me a mentor for a Junior Officer.
  • Host a Quiz Night!
  • Help the CLO.

The list above is what I've done in my 9 months here in Jerusalem.  It's fun to get out there and help.  It builds rapport with your colleagues and might even give you a bullet point on your next EER.

Advancement up the chain and getting good assignments are very much based on the relationships you build along the way.  One way to develop a good corridor-rep is to be seen as someone who helps out - not just the guy who says "no."  (If you're an FM reading this, you'll know what I mean.)

So get out from behind your computer and help out your fellow American diplomats.  You might even have fun!