Monday, May 25, 2020

(Happy?) Memorial Day

Isn't it interesting that we say "Happy Memorial Day" when we're recognizing a national holiday to honor and remember those service members and families who served and sacrificed for us? I'm grateful for those brave men and women, but it doesn't feel quite right to say the mood of a day like today is simply "happy" when there is a need for solemnity, not as a matter of obedience but of respect.

M and I tried to make our Memorial Weekend and especially Memorial Day special. We visited the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, worked on genealogy and thought about the veterans in both our families, and took some time to reflect quietly over long walks in the beauty of nature at Great Falls Park and in Georgetown. In this post, I thought I would intersperse photos we took this weekend with quotes, poems, or thoughts that I found worth considering on Memorial Day. I hope you get as much out of them as I did.

I'm embarrassed to say I never knew the story behind Taps until this year, but almost everyone will quickly recognize the tune. It was first played in 1862 during the Civil War and has now become our traditional military funeral melody. You can read the heartbreaking story behind it and listen to it played at Arlington National Cemetery here.

Regardless of political leanings, I hope we can all agree that we owe a lot to the sacrifices of our soldiers. Although we can never repay what we owe, we should strive to build a nation worth serving and a world where the horrors of war are lessened as much as possible. Adlai Stevenson II once said, "Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." And on Memorial Day in 1982, Ronald Reagan said, "And if words cannot repay the debt we owe these men, surely with our actions we must strive to keep faith with them and with the vision that led them to battle and to final sacrifice." (You can read more excerpts from that speech here.)

Many soldiers including some of our loved ones have drawn additional strength from their faith before, during, and after military service. I was struck by this Memorial Day message from Church in 2015 that still resonates today, as well as this linked video about two brothers who struggled with PTSD and addiction after returning from war.

I want to end with a poem called "The Unknown Dead" by Elizabeth Robbins Berry that I liked even as someone who is not a big appreciator of poetry in general. (You can read other Memorial Day poems here.) Thanks for taking the time to read, and I hope you had a peaceful and sound Memorial Day.

The Unknown Dead by Elizabeth Robbins Berry

Above their rest there is no sound of weeping,
Only the voice of song-birds thrills the air;
Unknown their graves, yet they are in God's keeping,
There are none "missing" from His tender care.

He knows each hallowed mound, and at His pleasure
Marshalls the sentinels of earth and sky;
O'er their repose kind Nature heaps her treasure,
Farmed by soft winds which 'round them gently sigh.

Bravely they laid their all upon the altar,
Counting as naught the sacrifice and pain,
Theirs but to do and die without a falter—
Ours to enjoy the victory and the gain.

They are not lost; that only which was mortal
Lies 'neath the turf o'erarched by Southern skies;
Deathless they wait beyond the heavenly portal,
In that fair land where valor never dies.

In the great heart of coming generations
Their fame shall live, their glory never cease;
Even when comes to all earth's troubled nations
God's perfect gift of universal peace.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Final FSI Korean Test Complete!

I have thoughts, I have advice, and I have feelings to share. But first of all, what a relief to have passed my final Korean test at the Foreign Service Institute (i.e., Diplomat School)! After almost nine months of intensive studying, I feel like a weight has been lifted. Now, I'll be working on maintaining the language skills I've gained so far, but there's definitely a lot less pressure.

Given the pandemic situation, instead of a normal in-person test I was assessed over video conference. Even though the setting was remote, the format of the test was very similar to what it would have been under normal circumstances. The biggest difference was being able to take the reading and speaking tests separately instead of in one sitting. Thankfully, I received the results even sooner than I expected. My final score is: 2+/2+!

I have a lot of conflicting emotions about this score. I did much better on the reading than I expected, but I was disappointed I failed to reach a 3 in speaking after being estimated at a 2+ months ago. At the same time, I only needed a 2/0 to pass so I'm grateful to have that out of the way at least. Maybe I can even try again for a higher score once we make it to Seoul and I spend some time living in a more immersive environment. And although I failed to reach the 10% language incentive pay threshold, I still qualified for a 5% pay bump!

So without violating any non-disclosure agreements, I do have some advice. I feel like I've learned a lot since my first FSI language test in Arabic a few years ago. So I thought I'd share a few things that I found helpful or that I wish I had known earlier in hopes it'll benefit some future FSI language student:

  • Familiarize yourself with the ILR standards. The language scores are based on Interagency Language Roundtable criteria, described in detail here. You can also watch short clips demonstrating the various levels in English. There's an example of where I wanted to be here, and where I currently am here.
  • Do your best to get your head in the game, but accept that (as my dad often said) excrement occurs. For example, in preparation for my reading test I went to bed early the night before, had a nutritious breakfast, and tried not to stress out. Despite my best efforts, though, I ended up having a horrible stress dream where I had to take the test while insects were laying eggs in my ears (gross, I know... I probably read too much science fiction). Then, I accidentally burned my breakfast and set off my smoke alarm. I was way more frazzled than I'd hoped the morning of my test, but I just had to roll with it! I tried to think of it as good preparation for work, where I'm sure I'll someday have to use my language skills when my brain feels completely fried.
  • Be bold. The language test is not a time for shyness; you've got to give them something to evaluate you on, after all! I would err on the side of being talkative and don't be too timid to interrupt the tester if you need to ask a question or clarify something.
  • Practice your self-introduction. The speaking portion of the test always begins with an introduction and small talk, so I always find getting that right helps me build confidence for the rest of the test.
  • Time yourself reading. It's not enough to have good reading comprehension. The reading portion of the test requires you to read fast, so when you're getting closer to your test date I highly recommend giving yourself a limited amount of time to read, summarize, and analyze articles to practice increasing your speed.
  • Try to avoid comparing yourself to your classmates or others. I personally struggle with this, but comparison is not only the thief of joy but it's the mother of a whole lot of unnecessary stress. (Yes, I just made that up... But it's true.)
  • Prepare a one pager with all the vocabulary and expressions you want to memorize for articulating yourself intelligently before the test. I was inspired to do this by my colleague S's excellent one pager specifically for how to discuss economics and statistics in Korean (it's amazing how many words there are for "increase" and "decrease"). I found it really helpful in elevating my ability to have a conversation, so I called it my "Sound Smart Reference Guide". (A snippet of it is the cover photo of this post.)
  • Team up with others. I really benefitted from helpful videos, articles, and tips other Korean students sent me, so I tried to share relevant things with them. We're all in this together.
  • Put things in perspective. Plenty of successful diplomats I look up to have failed language tests. The vast majority of people will not have their career ruined by a single bad language test. Most folks will just take a little more time and then wind up exactly where they are supposed to be anyway. And a few years later, nobody will likely know, remember, or care how many weeks it took you to get that score.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post. Best of luck to all of my colleagues who are preparing for language tests, and I'm raising a glass (of grapefruit seltzer) to myself and everyone else who is done!

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Top Email Newsletters I Recommend

I enjoy using email to stay informed, and I've tried a ton of different free email newsletters over the years. I use emails to stay on top of political and financial news as well as stay connected culturally and digitally with information that I feel adds something to my life. So I thought I'd sum up the newsletters that I've found to be tried and true. In other words, these are the ones I open and read every single time. Most are daily and concern the news, but there are some that are less frequent and more varied on topics. (And of course, you can sign up to receive emails for this blog, too! If you're on a desktop, just submit your email address in the lower right. If you're on a mobile device, just click view web version and then enter your email in the lower right.) Enjoy!

News

  • Vox Daily Sentences: This is a left-of-center summary of the news that covers a fair number of issues. Their reporting is thoughtful and they include information aggregated from other news sources in their newsletter.
  • The Atlantic Daily: I don't read most of The Atlantic in detail, but their newsletter gives me an idea of which longform pieces I actually want to take the time to read. Several of their articles have stuck with me years after I read them.
  • Robinhood Snacks: Robinhood provides succinct, punchy, and interesting finance news digestible even for not-so-economically-inclined readers like me.
  • Stephen Aftergood's Secrecy News: This is a bit of a niche newsletter that doesn't publish that frequently but provides updates in publicly available U.S. government secrecy, intelligence, and transparency policy. I recommend it for folks interested in national security and open government policy.
  • Diplopundit: This is essentially a blog for State Department insiders with a mix of breaking news, gossip, and analysis. I recommend it for folks who work at State who want to keep up with the goings-on of Foggy Bottom.

Spiritual

  • Latter Day Light: This is a short daily devotional with a brief Scripture, Church leader quote, Church history factoid, and usually a one-panel cartoon. I like it because it gives me a brief pause in my day to think about eternal things.
  • The Well Examined Life: This is a blog recently launched by my dear friend E, who is a lawyer by day but an excellent scholar of the Scriptures and religious history in his spare time. I always find his perspectives deeply thought-provoking and insightful, and I hope you will, too.
  • FamilySearch: I'll be the first to admit I'm not the most diligent family history researcher, but I still enjoy the emails from FamilySearch letting me know when there are some records in my family tree I can clean up and reminding me of memories and stories recorded about my ancestors.

Miscellaneous

  • TED-Ed Newsletter: I get about three original animated educational videos per week, and I watch whatever's in the email. The topics include history, literature, science, math, and even riddles, and the animations are beautifully done. I highly recommend this if you're just generally curious and want to learn something outside your wheelhouse.
  • Morgan Hazelwood's Writing Blog: This has great tips and encouragement for the creative writers out there! I heard about this great blog from someone at the Washington Science Fiction Association, and it definitely lived up to the hype. The newsletter is helpful without being overwhelming. Check it out!
  • Blogilates Newsletter: This is the newsletter for YouTube fitness legend Cassey Ho. I originally signed up for this to get the free monthly POP Pilates workout calendars, but I've also grown to love the blog posts and videos about body positivity, fitness, healthy eating, and more.
  • Slate's Dear Prudence: So I confess, I'm addicted to advice columns. I don't always agree with Slate's columnist, Daniel Mallory Ortberg, but I do like to think about the dilemmas posed in the weekly chats and think about how I would advise a friend in that situation. And thinking about those things has increased my understanding and compassion for people going through various hardships and has even helped me comfort my friends in real life more effectively when they're struggling.

Of course, there are some newsletters that I once read but fell by the wayside, but a lot of that is due to personal preference. I cancelled my subscription to theSkimm because they had a few cases of misleading reporting, and when I reached out to them they followed up with a form reply and no corrections. I stopped following Foreign Policy and Politico because I find they publish too many viewpoints too frequently for me to keep up with limited time. With Foreign Affairs and various DC think tank newsletters, I felt their most important content was generally captured in the news or conversations I'm already having with friends. I also used to get a lot of food-related emails and cancelled those because I can pretty much find all the food information I want when I want at my own convenience. Not all of these newsletters are bad, it's just that I don't have the time to read them.

If one or more of the newsletters above interest you, you should give it a shot and see if you like it! You can always unsubscribe later. I've sure enjoyed them a lot. Let me know in the comments if you have a recommendation that I missed; I'm always looking for more!