Great American Western Road Trip: Summer 2018

4 weeks, 3 kids, 1 van, 16 different lodgings, 5400+ miles, 12+ National or State Parks and Monuments adds up to 1 Epic Adventure.

American Southwest Family Vacation 2017

We followed historic Route 66 on our way to see the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, the Painted Desert, plus much more in New Mexico and Arizona.

End of Tour Summary: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Here are our stories from two and a half years of living in Saudi Arabia while exploring the region.

Excursions to Oman

On two different trips, we strolled Muscat, hiked Wadi Shab, and sailed a dhow through the fjords of Musandam.

Our Expedition to Jordan

Highlights included tracing the steps of Indiana Jones into Petra, following Lawrence of Arabia into Wadi Rum, and floating in the Dead Sea.

Monday, December 05, 2011

My Air Force Experience: A Future Decided Behind Closed Doors (6 of 11)

Well, today’s the day that people I’ve probably never met will determine if the people who wrote my officer performance reports (OPRs) were convincing enough to get me selected for promotion. It’s true that “You don’t meet the board, your records do.” And since I didn’t write my own OPRs (those with military experience probably just smirked a little bit), you could say that the board’s decision is an indirect evaluation at best.

Since this is my “second-look”, it’s historically unlikely that I will get promoted. While I won’t find out the results for a couple of months, one thing is certain: my career field wasn’t listed among those identified as critical enough for the board to select me for continuation if I’m not promoted. So I’ll probably be separating from the military in the summer, regardless of whether I want to or not.

To read my Military to Civilian Transition mini-series in chronological order, Click Here.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Considering my Options: USAID (5 of 11)

The bad news is that I did not pass my FSO Oral Assessment. You can find a description of the process here. I scored a 5.0 but I needed at least 5.25 to continue in the process. But it did give me an insight into why lawyers seem to do well in the FSO process: they can argue either side of an argument, whether they actually believe in what they are saying or not. But meeting other FSO hopefuls revealed something else to me: I'm not so sure that becoming an FSO would actively engage me in the way I want to make the world a better place...but it would involve a lot of meetings and paperwork. I'm more of a "get your hands dirty" problem solver.

So, now it’s time for Plan C: pursue a USAID Foreign Service Officer position. I've got an application in for a mid-level Backstop 76 "Crisis, Stabilization and Governance Officer" opening...assuming it stays open given the federal budget situation. My current status is "Reviewed - Tentatively Passed Basic Qualifications" but they've already cancelled the entry level opening so there's no telling how that will turn out.

And I do have a few more plans in the works...but most are still in the application phase. But for completeness, let's summarize:
Plan A: Remain in the military [Expected decision: Mar 12]
Plan B: Foreign Service Officer (State Dept) [Closed: Nov 11]
Plan C: Foreign Service Officer (USAID)
Plan D: Foreign Service Construction Engineer
Plan E: Foreign Service Facility Manager

To update the extended metaphor: The plane door is open and the wind is howling, and I just ripped my parachute. So I've got to find a new one and brace myself…we’re in for a bumpy ride.
It's a long way down...
Because of my current service commitments, I can't just jump and see how it all turns out. I'm strapped in until the AF gives me the option to go. When will that be? That all depends on the promotion board’s decision in December as well as the timing of the promotion announcement decision itself. While I received a "Promote" recommendation, the military's funny about these sort of things. I would have had a very high chance of getting promoted with a "Definite Promote" recommendation, but a "Promote" is only about 50% successful for those meeting the promotion board the first time. And since I've already been through the promotion cycle once, my odds are approaching 0%.

It’s complicated to explain, I know. But the timing and conditions of separation (the likely outcome based on current odds) determine which benefits I would receive: veteran’s preference points, separation pay, and possibly even education benefits for my daughter. So there’s quite a bit at stake.
What I'm trying to avoid.
To read my Military to Civilian Transition mini-series in chronological order, Click Here.
To read my Entering the Foreign Service mini-series in chronological order, Click Here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The world outside the hotel door

I'm in town for a couple days for a conference, but it's winding down now. I'm staying in the same hotel where the the conference is being held, making lunch the only time I made it out into the sunshine. The walk back to my room after today's wrap-up found me strolling down the nondescript, windowless hallway. The rhythm of the doorways was only punctuated by the lonely copies of USA Today abandoned by their owners that the cleaning staff hadn't cleaned up yet.

About two hours later, I noticed that someone had slipped a flyer for Crispy's Pizza under my door. Actually, I didn't notice them slipping it under, only that it had been slipped under my door as I sat in my room watching the TV. Which seemed strange, like I felt my personal space was violated by a piece of paper on one side of the door but a whole pile of of paper on the other side of the door was totally legit.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Toddler's birthday party: Organized Chaos

This weekend we celebrated our daughter's second birthday. It was a pool party, with an aquatic theme. You'd think this would be pretty straight-forward to decorate with, since everyone knows Nemo. But finding Nemo nowadays is nearly impossible, as Cars have run them out of the toy stores, party shops, and balloon stands. But after many hours of searching, we found some large balloons shaped like colorful fish AND got a discount on them...because the store was trying to clear them out to make room for something more popular.

In keeping with the theme, we had a clownfish-shaped cake, cupcakes decorated with various sea creatures, fish bowls filled with blue jello and gummy fish suspended within them, and even aquatic animal-shaped beachballs floating in the pool.

The cake
The birthday feast
Gummi fish in blue jello
By the way...if you're planning on suspending anything in jello, make sure the fluid has enough gelatin and the refrigerator is cold enough. Otherwise, you might find yourself up at midnight trying to figure out a way to keep the gummy fish from sinking to the bottom, like ours did.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Backstop 76 applications submitted

So, in an effort to hedge my future employment bets, I've also applied for two Crisis, Stabilization and Governance Officer (Backstop 76) positions with USAID. I think what drew me in was this section of the job description:

As an Officer in USAID's Foreign Service, s/he serves most of his/her career overseas in less developed countries affected by conflict, complex emergencies, natural disasters, and transitions in governance. S/he manages U.S. Government resources, implementation teams, contractors and grantees to achieve specific program objectives and results. If selected to serve as a BS-76 officer, s/he will be expected to develop the required competencies and skills across the full range of technical and program areas associated with the variety of functions within this backstop. However, the officer will be assigned initially in one of the two main focal areas of the backstop, namely governance (democracy, political processes and transitions, stabilization) OR response (disaster and complex emergencies, food aid and humanitarian assistance) based on prior experience and demonstrated competencies/skill sets. The officer will then be provided opportunities to develop expertise in the related sub-skill specialties that encompass this rather broad backstop through training and subsequent assignments.
Yeah, live overseas (with family), help people in need, and make the world a better place...and get paid for it? Here's hoping.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Future Career Path Discussions with the Colonel (4 of 11)

My Foreign Service Oral Assessment invitation arrived today! 107 days since I took the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) 66 days since I submitted the PNQs. I saw the email on my phone as I was headed for lunch, and wouldn't you know it, I couldn't download the file. And while it took a great deal of self-discipline not to rush to the nearest computer to find out the results, I decided that win or lose, it was better to find out on a full stomach. The butterflies aren't nearly as frantic when they are sated.

As I drove to the library to check my test results, the last song playing on the radio was the Black Eyed Peas "Tonight's gonna be a good night." Call it the power of positive thinking (even if you don't like the song), but I opened the letter with guarded optimism. Like most people, I stopped processing what I read after reading "Congratulations!" It's still not guaranteed that I'll pass the OA, but at least I'm still in contention. I'm currently deciding when to schedule my OA, as my job is looking to start getting busier as time goes by.

Concurrently, the paperwork for the second military promotion board has started to flow. I should point out that my career field is considered “mission support”, one that lacks the glamour and fraternity of being a ‘flier’ or the 'practical necessity' of several other career fields (medical, special operations, etc). This is a polite way of stating that the promotion opportunity for me “above the zone” was virtually non-existent.  Which led to a fun interchange between my boss and me during the career path discussion he's having with each of his subordinants:

Me: "Sir, I'm here for my appointment to discuss my career options with you."
Boss: ", given your situation, have you looked at what opportunities are available to you?"
Me: "I have. And very few of them involve staying in the military."
As for the extended metaphor: To me, it feels like I’m watching the engine oil temperature dial for my one remaining engine slowly rising and knowing that if the engine gets too hot, it’s going to seize up. You, my friend, are about to watch me become a very heavy glider.

To read my Military to Civilian Transition mini-series in chronological order, Click Here.
To read my Entering the Foreign Service mini-series in chronological order, Click Here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Quote of the Day

Here's a comforting thought for anyone facing the unknown:

"You need to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Stop & Go in Severe Weather

I-65, Somewhere south of Montgomery, AL
I enjoy driving. Like most people, I'm also not really a big fan of traffic. Especially if nasty weather is involved. It seems like you get three kinds of people on the road at these times:
  1. The driver who just gives up & decides to wait it out by stopping on the shoulder of the road. If you're lucky, they have pulled completely off the road and haven't simply stopped right in the middle of it.
  2. The driver who believes that the massive vehicle they're driving can weather any storm and doesn't slow down. It's always satisfying to see them in a ditch a little bit later, so long as no one is injured.
  3. The driver who slows down to a crawl but keeps going.
I tend to fall into the third category, for reasons like the one I experienced today. Imagine if you will, traffic is humming along at, I don't know, say 75 mph. Yeah, that's over the speed limit, but you learn quickly that on open highways in the South, your speed is largely dictated to you by how fast the semi-truck is going behind you.

Unless something happens in the road up ahead. The storm clouds that were rolling in parallel to the highway, but they came in so fast and thick that the sky was bright blue on the left and a deep gun-metal grey on the right. And then the road turned into the storm. In the next minute, all manner of hazard lights started flashing on the cars ahead as errant leaves and dismembered tree limbs went whipping around us. The lightning strikes were the only thing louder than the rain, and the flashes approached us in such quick succession that it felt like Zeus was fine-tuning his celestial artillery on our position.

And that's when people started pulling over. I can understand them being concerned about their cars being buffeted by the strong winds from the passing front, but that's why the rest of us slowed down to a crawl. Why would you want to 'sit it out' in the middle of a wooded area with no protection if you've already seen things flying around that can do damage? The clouds extended as far as the minimum visibility would allow me to see, but I figured that if I just kept driving, I'd get through it sooner than pulling off the road.

And sure enough, maybe 15 minutes later, I was back under the blue skies and my rear view mirror was completely dark. When I saw the local weather report on the news, it looked like the folks who had stopped were probably there for at least an hour or more. I don't know, to me, it just doesn't seem like an option to stop when things get bad if there's any chance that things will get better.

Friday, August 12, 2011

It Begins Today!

So, I have finally made the decision to overhaul my personal website and transfer all of my travel journals to blog format. For the last decade or so, I've tried (with varying degrees of success) to build self-contained, virtual journals with links to related photos and recommended locations or activities. Only there are a few problems with this implementation plan:
  1. It's laborious to custom-craft HTML code for each trip I go on. It's also dauntingly demotivating, since the last thing I want to do after a nice trip is sit down in front of my computer and code. Since these journals go back 10 years, we're talking some very basic HTML elements, stored in various versions on I-don't-know-how-many back-up hard-drives that I've transferred between a half-dozen computers. And if I want to stay consistent, I have to update everything each time I write a new I need a standard that I can update easily. Like cutting and pasting into a standard blog. There's always a better way to blog.
  2. "New" technologies like smart phones mean that I can actually travel and update my posts while on the move, rather than trying to carve out time from my increasingly full schedule to tinker with updates so that they look just right on all the different viewing platforms. This is something I want to do, but not at the expense of so many other things I want to do with my free time. 
  3. No feedback. While this might be a good thing to shield me from the harsh fact that there's probably nobody reading my journals anyways, the least I can do is provide an opportunity for those that do visit to chime in with updates or contradictions about what I say. I really should find a sound file that plays some Russian and Chinese.
  4. I'm reorganizing my travel photos online as well, so this should provide me a much easier way to organize my digital photos to coordinate the journals with the associated travel photos to give you, the reader, the most comprehensive recounting of these experiences.

So, that's the plan. Which mean that this particular post is probably going to be something of a non-sequitur, as I'm going to back-date all the journals to the time I actually went on the trips. Which will mean there will be a decade of content prior to this post that says I'm preparing to create content. Who needs Dr. Who when you're creating your own time-space paradox?

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Towel Animals!

These are the animals that our cabin steward left for us:





I should point out that the ape's head is held in place by friction from the arms. Which could become a disturbing situation for a toddler who watches her dad grab the ape and accidentally decapitate it with his bare hands. The fact that the head bounced across the floor and stopped rolling at her feet probably didn't help the matter.

There was also a picture of a mouse made from a washcloth, but I don't have a picture of it.
Related Links:

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Snokelling in Chankanaab Park

No Excursions, just caught a cab

Related Links:

Friday, August 05, 2011

Lamanai, the Submerged Crocodile

But I've never been to Belize...

Boat launch

Howler Monkey
Listen to the howler monkeys in the rainforest

Hello down there!


Related Links:

Thursday, August 04, 2011

My Air Force Experience: Appeal Denied (3 of 11)

Anyone familiar with the military knows that appeals are anything but a sure thing. There are no historical rates available because the process is basically a review of the existing outliers (10 U.S. Code § 14502). For the Special Selection Board, “They” say that your appeal package will be compared against a sample of your peers from the original board. I think the standard is that they compare your package to the lowest five that made the cut and you have to beat one of them. But the diversity of military duties makes this all but impossible to compare apples to apples (within specialties) without reconvening the entire board: Did I as an engineer perform better than a pilot, a security forces officer, a logistician, or a personnelist? Hard to say.

UPDATE 8 MARCH 2015: Sign the petition to Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), the Chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee that calls on the Department of Defense to close a loophole and allow the GI Bill Transfer of Education Benefits to spouses and children for service members who could not complete his or her service agreement as a result of involuntary separation due to non-selection for promotion, just like it does for everyone else that gets forced out when the military needs to make personnel cuts.

The logical circle that develops is: “You would have been promoted if your record was good enough, but since I’m reviewing your record at an appeals board…something in your record must not have been good enough, so we’re not going to promote you.” What was wrong with my record was that the  Air Force Personnel Center misfiled my most recent performance report, and while they did was too little, too late. Even so, they agreed to review my whole package as it would have met the original promotion board, but I wouldn't really be measured against my peers.

As you probably figured out, my appeal was denied. The starboard engine is officially dead. I’ve got one shot left at getting promoted or I will be required by law to separate from the military no later than six months after the second promotion board’s recommendation is finalized, per paragraph (a).(1) of 10 U.S. Code § 632 - Effect of failure of selection for promotion: captains and majors of the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps and lieutenants and lieutenant commanders of the Navy.

To read more about the promotion appeals process, the odds for promotion above the zone, and my own military-to-civilian transition, Click Here.

On a wing and a prayer’s Plan B, the Foreign Service? Due to non-disclosure requirements, I can’t say too much about the Personal Narrative Questions (PNQs). But imagine trying to use a very limited number of words to describe the experiences that you think best represent what the Foreign Service is looking for.
You only get three weeks to write and refine them after passing the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) before the window closes and your entire application package is reviewed by the aptly named Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP). These are the folks who decide if I get invited to the Oral Assessment (OA)… the metaphorical equivalent of getting my parachute harness on and shuffling to the door.

There is a considerable amount of time between submitting the PNQs and getting the invitation to the OA. I submitted my PNQs around 19 July 11 and I’m still waiting for my OA invitation…hopefully sometime in September.

If you're looking for books about transitioning out of the military, these are useful:

To read my Entering the Foreign Service mini-series in chronological order, Click Here.

Where on earth is Roatan?

Roatan Island, Honduras

Driving out to the reef?

And then the kid started to freak out...

Hold on a minute, I'm taking a mental picture!

Related Links:

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Mayan Ruins at Kohunlich

Costa Maya, Mexico
The Mayan ruins at Kohunlich

Temple of the Masks Kiosk
Like Daddy, like daughter 

We're going to climb that?

I may look cool, but it was hot that day.
Nature reclaiming the ruins

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Monday, August 01, 2011

Cruising around the Gulf of Mexico

We're taking an extended family vacation this week, including grandparents, aunts and cousins.
After driving from Pensacola to New Orleans yesterday, we boarded the Norwegian Spirit and set sail for Mexico, Belize, and Honduras!

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