Tuesday, January 29, 2013

House of Representatives

Though I'm a Political Officer, I realized last week that I had yet to set foot in the Department of Foreign Affairs or either of the Philippine houses of congress.  I deal more with Rule of Law and NGOs, so I've left those "traditional" political contacts to my colleagues ... except I decided for my own education, perhaps I should broaden my perspective.  Thus, I volunteered today to take notes during a meeting at the House of Representatives.  My colleagues were only too happy to let me take the hour-plus drive (each way) to attend.  Win Win all around. 

The building, while not historic, certainly has an aura about it, like the U.S. House.  Large, deep open hallways, with small air-con rooms, make the best of operating the building energy efficiently.  Benches line the walk ways, on which were seated people of all walks of life, waiting to speak to their representatives -- democracy at work!

During the meeting, neither side strayed from official talking points, which was to be expected.  So while nothing too interesting there (and not like you'd read about it on this blog even if there were!), I did have one unique experience. 

I arrived two hours early with my local staffer, so we could go over the lay of the land.  I had warned the local staffer that I'd need about 20 minutes to pump around 4:00 - and since she used to work in the House, I'd appreciate if she could show me the quietest restroom.  Being so considerate, she took it a step further, and inquired in the protocol office if they had a lactation room.  (to ask that had never even occured to me)

Turns out, one of the protocol officers has a three month old and just returned to work - so they had an empty room they set aside for her to pump, which they kindly allowed me to use.  After a quick pump, the other new mom and I had a conversation about pros and cons of different pumps (she uses Avent which was also the most common brand in India - I use Ameda), totally gibberish to the others.  Diplomacy over pumping :)   Ian sends his thanks to the House.

Monday, January 28, 2013

One foot in, one foot out

That awkward time of our circular life is starting - I have one foot in, and one foot out.  Neither all the way here, or even one step there.  Trying to enjoy day to day activities in Manila, while keeping anxiety about the move at bay.  You'd think, having done this twice already, I'd be fine.  But, no, it's nerve wracking all the same.

Forms are filled out for our move and our surveys are scheduled.  Last parent-teacher conferences are scheduled (well, Wm's is easy, since his school year ends March 15; that was by design at the beginning of the tour).  House hunt in full swing (thanks, little sis!).  I've started giving things away (maternity clothes! diapers that are too small!) and packing up things I won't need to see until we get to DC (newborn clothes, some toys for the first two boys so that way they'll seem new again in five months).

Even at work I've already been tasked with preparing points for my evaluation and putting together a training plan and contact sheet for my successor - while at the same time writing all of the year end reports that capture my human rights work of the last year.

For an update on things I wanted to accomplish before we leave: (1) Wm can ride a bike and (2) Patch is taking swim lessons and *almost* there.  Hooray for living at Seafront!  Bonus: only the baby is now in diapers (though we still have some night time accidents ... but all the same: HOORAY).

Whale shark and Baguio trip scheduled, Operation Baby Dive complete.  Hoping for one more diving trip once Greg's eyes fully heal (on his Manila bucket list was Lasik - his corneas made PRK (a related procedure) a better option).

I'd love to make it out to the Chinatown cemetery, and maybe to the Bamboo Pipe Organ Festival, but not really sure if I want to schedule something for more weekends or just chill out.  Relaxing weekends are quickly becoming a scarce commodity. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Operation Baby Dive

We've really enjoyed diving in the Philippines - underwater is beautiful, and it breaks up spending endless hours on the beach (which, while great for the boys, is not really our thing).  Having really enjoyed diving our first nine months here ... the last year was a bit of a bummer since I had to give it up while pregnant.  Greg went on one trip without me, but then felt sort of guilty leaving a super pregnant wife home with two kids while he took off.  I know we could have all gone to the beach - we tried that for a day trip - but I was just too hot.  So, that was the end of diving and beaches for a bit.  Really for almost all of 2012, except for a few rare instances.

And why be in the Philippines if you're not going to the beach?  That's silly.

After our first trip out
After I returned from the US with #3, I started scheming ways to go diving again -- trick being I'm still nursing, and baby is still little, so more than three hours out gets a bit uncomfortable.  I finally came up with an idea: Greg and I would both go, splitting the dives (ie, one of us dives, while the other stays in banca with baby).  Except then Greg decided to get PRK (like Lasik) and is still on a no-swimming recovery order.  So then the plan was altered: our nanny would come on the boat with me, and Greg and his dad (visiting Manila for work) would stay on the beach.

Bummer for Greg, but more diving for me!
Chillin' on the banca with his yaya

I did a bunch of research and found a baby life vest that seemed to have good reviews (two from families living on house boats), so Ian was safe.  Our nanny was happy because sitting on a boat with a baby is infinitely easier than playing all day on the beach in the sun with two active boys.  My father in law was happy because he got to spend some great time with his son and grandkids.  I think Greg was the only disappointed one - especially when he heard that on one dive, we saw a sea turtle, a barracuda, a wall of silver jacks, and a school of mackerels.

Greg and the big bros exploring tide pools
Ian wasn't that big of a fan of the life vest, and it did have to come off when he nursed.  Otherwise, though, I think it generally went OK and could be repeated once more before we leave (if Greg gets the OK from the doc to dive again).

Side note for any other lactating-diving moms out there: I was OK to about 50 feet.  At 60 feet, I could feel the pressure (not in my ears - those could be equalized!), and 70 feet was uncomfortable.  The salt didn't seem to bother the baby, surprisingly.

Friday, January 18, 2013

A skill to acquire

A week ago Friday, I squeezed my four-month-post-partum-self into my "official" suit (a timeless navy with white cord trimming saved for interviews and the first day of work at new post) for an on-camera TV interview.  Honestly, I was more excited about fitting into the suit than being on TV.  :)

A CBS-affiliate journalist was visiting Manila to get background footage for a story he was doing on Filipino oil rig workers killed in an explosion.  (previous segment here)  Trafficking is my portfolio, so our public affairs section agreed for me to give him 20 minutes off record for background and 5 minutes on camera with two specific questions.

I have no idea if the footage he took of me will make it onto his clip, but I do have two thoughts about the experience:

1. It is really hard to speak in a single coherent sentence when consciously trying to do so. Ie, to create that "sound byte" when talking extemporaneously and not reading off of anything.  This will be a skill to acquire, should I ever have a job putting me in the media eye. I certainly don't have it now!

2. New Orleans must really love Drew Brees.  The journalist and camera man asked where was home, and when I responded Austin, the first comment was - "Oh, that's where Drew Brees is from. Do you know him?"  "Not anymore," I answered, "but he was in my high school physics class."  That was apparently enough for the camera man to put me down in his "cool" book.  

So much going on...

... so little time to write!

As expected, the pace of life picks up exponentially with the end in sight.

It's "report season" at work - just finished V2 of the Human Rights Report, will start drafting the Child Labor Report next week, and then the Trafficking in Persons report starts up the following week.  Also trying to squeeze in a talk at a university on "human rights and foreign policy" and observing a training session an NGO is doing on LGBT human rights - and that's all before the end of this month.  Not to mention a last minute visit with Mrs. Missouri International, a very kind Filipina-American advocating for trafficking victims, who visited the Embassy today.

Our New Year's Cards should be in the mail on Wednesday (if you didn't get one, and want one, we have some extras - just let me know your address :) ).  They're a little late, since I opted to have them designed and printed here - which of course took longer than I had budgeted for.  But, better late than never!

We've managed to discover and go back to Seaside, an open fish market / restaurant walking distance to our house.  That deserves a photo blog post of its own.  And we're off for Operation Baby Dive tomorrow morning - another blog post required!  And we've started filling out forms for our upcoming move, scheduling our move survey and pack out. Gack.

Not to mention the progress of the house hunt (two contenders currently standing).  And all the things all three boys are doing.  Wm just learned how to ride a two wheeler (of course, now we feel like we need to get a second bike, so Patch can have one to ride with training wheels).  Patch is so close to being able to swim on his own.  Ian can roll both ways and he squirms across the floor when he's on his tummy.

It's non-stop activity at our place!  I know parents talk about limiting "screen time," but the only way we can seem to get Wm and Patch to sit still is playing a game on the iPad.

Re-reading, this is not very coherent or organized, but that mirrors my mental state right now.  I think I'll regain my sanity in September, after we've moved in, unpacked, started jobs and school. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

And the house hunt is on

By far the most stressful thing about moving back to the U.S. is deciding where to live.

When we're overseas, the Embassy Housing Board just assigns us some place, based on the housing pool available and the officer's rank and family size (spelled out in 15 FAM Exhibit 237A, if you're curious about the government regulations on rank and square footage).  I have yet to be selected as a volunteer for a housing board, but I'm really interested to do so to learn about the decision making process.  E.g., weighing the rank of a section chief with no kids at home against a junior officer with four kids against a stand alone house vs. an apartment in a swank building near the school.  Almost all posts send out a questionnaire to gauge a family's preference, but often it boils down to what's available when you arrive.

Going back to DC, though, we have no such housing board to miraculously place us somewhere.  And our condo at 2 bedrooms, laundry in the basement, and 1000 sq ft would be more than a little tight for our family of five, plus nanny.  As much as we love our condo, it's right out.  The row houses in the same neighborhood are upwards of $800K, sadly out of our price range.  Our dreams of staying in Glover Park are dashed.

Realistically looking at our budget, wanting to stay in a close in area, and Greg's automatic rejection of anything in Virginia, has led us to look at the Shepherd Park / Silver Spring / Takoma Park neighborhoods.  Still pretty pricey, but possible to find something in the $650K range.  While I say this all very matter of factly, it wasn't easy rejecting our old "west of the Park" orientation or the Capitol Hill area (which I really came to love during prego-vac ... and which has a public Montessori charter school we could have entered the boys in a lottery for).

Holidays were spent evaluating financing options (what happens if our tenants refuse to move out and we can't sell the condo?) and timing requirements (we must occupy the house in 60 days, so the earliest possible closing date is March 1).  Then lining up mortgage pre-qualification (after many attempts, a broker recommended by our real estate agent pulled through with flying colors).  Now for the super tricky part - looking at listings online and communicating our likes/dislikes to my sister (our eyes on the ground) and the real estate agent.

It's difficult to weigh the house price / house feel option from across an ocean.  E.g., one is listed now with a good floor plan and good location, but super ugly 1960s facade and bright yellow paint inside.  How much of a discount should we ask from list price?  It's a lot of trust to place in our agent - and a big burden to ask of my sister.  But, considering we do need some place to live come June 1, not sure we have any other option.

(Note: the State Department isn't totally cruel.  For a domestic transfer, we do get a $77/night allowance for the first 30 days to help defray the cost of a hotel while searching for a house or while waiting for furniture shipment to arrive.  And, in our case, since we are both officers, we both get the $77/night.  It's not really enough to cover the cost in the DC area, but every little bit does help.)