Category: Life

Personal posts about family, expat life, etc.

The End of Letters

Letter of Note - Mott

I’ve long enjoyed the website/Twitter feed Letters of Note, which resurrects correspondence between famous people or personal notes recalling significant historical events.

In cleaning up my office today, I stumbled upon my own letter of note from a since-departed university professor who taught a class on “The End of History.” Professor Albert Mott was an ascot-wearing eccentric who didn’t blink an eye when I told him I was going to write my class project on 1970s British punk music. (Laughably, I think I titled my piece “No Time to Be 21” after this song by The Adverts.) I’m still not sure where I was going with that, but he made sure to loan me his copy of “Sid and Nancy” for additional research.

I can’t remember the last time that I received a personal letter like this (i.e., one that wasn’t an email). Of course, I can’t remember the last letter I sent either. At any rate, I’m pleased to get this glimpse back at myself and a few of my post-collegiate thoughts.

The end of history. The end of letters.

The end.

Hubble Nebula 5189

Departing Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Hubble Nebula 5189
Hubble Telescope’s photo of the planetary nebula NGC 5189.

“What would you ask an astronaut?”

My friend Pam, who was preparing to interview everyone’s current favorite space explorer Commander Chris Hadfield, posed that question on Facebook the other day. “What would you ask an astronaut?”

I chimed in because who wouldn’t want to ask an astronaut a question? Fewer than 600 people have ever been in space in the history of the world — that’s roughly the average number of people within a social network. Being an astronaut is the rarest of occupations; going to space is the rarest of trips.

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Miracle at Nationals Park


“Do you mind if I interview your little boy for The Washington Post?” asked a sandy-haired man in a jacket of the same color. We were all standing in front of the gates of Nationals Park as crowds were streaming in for the opening game of the season. Dante was wearing a bright red National cap embroidered with a “W,” and was looking very much the part of the young baseball fan.

“Sure,” I said, then turned to Dante and asked, “would you like to answer a few questions for this man?”

“Do you have tickets?” Dante squealed at the man. “Where are the tickets? WHERE ARE THE TICKETS?”

I looked up at the reporter and told him we were still looking for a pair of tickets. It was a beautiful day, the best you could hope for on April 1. The sun was out, temperatures were in the low 60s. It was the exact opposite weather I expected for Opening Day, which is one of the reasons I hadn’t bothered to order tickets in the first place. When I realized that Dante had the day off of school, I made a decision mid-morning that we would take the Metro down to the ballpark to see if there were any standing-room-only tickets. “Maybe we will get lucky,” I thought.

Dante’s line of questioning continued, “We NEED tickets! Do you have the tickets?”

The reporter looked at me blankly, clearly wondering why he wasn’t the one asking the questions.

“He’s autistic,” I offered. It’s never the first phrase I utter about my son but it comes in handy to explain behaviors that others perceive as odd. “He’s autistic, but I can help him answer the questions if you still want to interview him.”

“Come find me when you get tickets. Good luck!”

The journalist had struck out. He was there to report on the excitement of Opening Day at National Park and our twin sob stories of a boy with autism having no ticket to get into the stadium were not what he was looking for. Read more

Foreign Service Officers Killed in Line of Duty

The Dangers of the Foreign Service

Foreign Service Officers Killed in Line of Duty

On the few occasions that I have visited the State Department, either for interviews, to get help from the Family Liaison Office, or to visit my husband for lunch, I have felt the need to linger just inside the security gates, in the imposing, marble lobby of the Harry S. Truman building, to view the American Foreign Service Association’s Memorial Plaque.

Located on the west end of the building, the plaque lists the names of State Department personnel who have died while serving in U.S. diplomatic missions abroad. The plaque lists the officer’s name, where and when he/she died, and the nature of the diplomats’ deaths.

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Remembering September 11, 2001

It’s a question we all ask of one another, the same question our parents’ generation asked each other when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and the same question our grandparents’ generation asked following Pearl Harbor:

“Where were you?”

Everyone who was alive and aware of the horrific events of September 11, 2001, know exactly where they were when they heard the news. Most of us remember the minutiae, as well: the faces of the television anchors breaking the news, what we were wearing, how we got home that day or night (even if we were nowhere near the attack sites). Many of us also know friends or friends of friends who perished and/or lost someone that day.

I was in Florence, Italy, on September 11, 2001. Where were you?

Photo by Flickr user althouse

Spending the Holidays Three Houses Down from America’s Christmas Lights Display Winner – #sonyholiday

Whitis Family Christmas House in Tallahassee, Florida. Winners of the GMA Contest.
Semper Fi Christmas House, Tallahassee, Florida

I’m spending the holidays in Tallahassee, Florida, which happens to be the town from which the Whitis family, the winners of Good Morning America’s “Our Lights Are Better Than Your Lights”, hail. I’m not only in the same town as this Christmas lights attraction, but approximately three doors down from it. When my family and I arrived after a very long drive yesterday, we had to get a police escort to stop traffic so we could get down the street to my sister’s house. Cars were lined up for at least a mile to get a chance to drive by the GMA winners’ home.

So what does it take to earn bragging rights for the best Christmas lights in the nation? Apparently, it takes 17,000 LED lights and a patriotic, red-white-and-blue light show set to the techno remix of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American.” I can’t say it’s a beautiful display – the word “tacky” comes to mind. But it certainly took a lot of effort and the winners have asked visitors and online admirers to contribute to the Semper Fi Fund, an organization that provides “immediate financial support for injured and critically ill members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families.”

I took a few photos* of the Whitis’ lit-up home, but you can’t really appreciate the audaciousness of this light display until you watch the video complete with music. Thankfully, for the neighbors’ sake, the family has purchased some radio spectrum (92.3 FM) for the duration of the Christmas light show so the neighborhood doesn’t have to endure techno music repeating on a four-minute loop for five hours per night. (I understand there’s currently a lawsuit against the family because of the light and music display, which is probably one reason why the radio spectrum was purchased.)

Here’s the full video of the Whitis’ family’s Semper Fi Christmas House, which will be on display through Christmas night. I promise you this is real:



*All photos (except featured photo) taken with the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-WX9 camera, which was provided courtesy of Sony.

Fall of the Wall

BerlinWall-BrandenburgGate-1989-Nov-09November 9, 2009, marks 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was in 9th grade when the news came across CNN that the physical symbol of the East/West divide was on the verge of toppling. And my mother reminded me today while I was reminiscing about the event that I sat for hours and hours watching East Berliners chip away at “die Mauer” and West Berliners extending their hands to their German brothers and sisters as they scrambled to scale the wall.

I didn’t know at the time that less than two years later I would be a resident of Germany, a teenage exchange student in a small northwest-central town near Osnabrück. But I did know that I wanted to be there in Germany at that moment, experiencing history as it happened. I’m trying to think of moments that have happened since then that have spawned in me true elation. Of course my wedding day and my babies’ births were incredibly happy days. But while those were personal milestones, the fall of the Berlin wall was one of those occasions where you knew that you and the rest of the world were all watching a momentous event at the same time. If only we had Twitter back then! The only thing that could possibly compare was the election this year in the U.S. of Barack Obama. There was euphoria coupled with the understanding that much work needed to be done.

In retrospect, the events of 9/11/89 (the date written in the European way) are almost more moving now than they were then. Perhaps it is because I know – or once knew – Germany and the Germans so well. Like I said, I lived in small-town Germany from 1991-1992 and completely immersed myself in the culture. In spring 1992 I had the chance to attend a week-long student seminar in Berlin. During that week, my fellow students and I used Berlin as our playground: visiting Kneipen (pubs), at 17 already able to handle our beers responsibly thanks to months living with Germany’s relaxed drinking age; stumbling down Ku’Damm late at night, riffing and joking in our adopted language and guided by the eerie blue light of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, a symbol from the ravages of World War II; shopping for vintage clothing in Kreuzberg; and taking strong coffees at a little café on the upper floor of a building on Lindenstraße, a main street in the former East.

A lot of the Wall was already gone by then, having been divvied up for sale to tourists. And the vast transformation that Berlin would undergo had yet to be initiated. This was all before Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag and before the empty spaces of Alexanderplatz – East Berlin’s main square – got a Western makeover with fast food restaurants, shopping centers, and neon. The mood was uncertain, with Germans still referring to each others as “Wessis” (from the West) and “Ossis” (from the East). Still there was also a sense of general happiness and possibility. Perhaps it was my teenage naïveté, but it was an exciting time.

Save for many transits through Munich and Frankfurt airports, I have been back to Germany only once since returning to the U.S. in 1992. But the memories of 9/11/89 and my exchange year visit to Berlin remind me of how far the world has come – and how far we have also fallen.

There are so many moments in history that you can point to that signaled the end of innocence. The fall of the Berlin Wall was one of those rare instances that felt like a beginning of innocence, rebirth, hope. Indeed, that  monumental night two decades ago in Berlin effectively ended the post-war period and ushered in the happy era before the next 9/11.

Photo by Sue Ream