Zooming into the Foreign Service

When last we talked, dear reader, I (Andrew) was waiting to join the Foreign Service. Like a road trip with no speedometer, I had a predictable destination but an uncertain timeline.

The folks at the State Department’s Bureau of Global Talent Management (GTM) have been working tirelessly to solve a range of logistical and legal issues to allow me and my classmates to join. Foreign Service Orientation, commonly referred to as A-100 and named for the room in the State, Navy, an War building where it the class was first held, has never been held virtually before. And swearing an oath of office for government service virtually hasn’t been permitted until very recently. But GTM and the team at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) have innovated at lightning speed to onboard us and move forward the State Department’s mission of advancing the interests of the American people.

Today, I swore my oath of office and officially joined the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer! It’s not the first time I’ve sworn that oath, and I take it very, very seriously. The swearing in happened remotely, using Microsoft Teams. It was halting and awkward, but no less meaningful.

The swearing of the oath calls to mind the time that I stood aboard the flight deck of the Coast Guard Cutter Munro and swore the same oath to join the US Coast Guard. As then, the oath is one of devotion and implies the ideas of service and self-sacrifice. Those doing the swearing give up some measure of freedom so that others may retain a full, unmolested measure of the same.

The road ahead remains uncertain, but it’s the uncertainty that I’ve been expecting. As disappointing as it was to not join the State Department at the Main State building in Washington DC, , my swearing-in was boiled down to its essence. With all the trappings stripped away, all that remains is my oath. It’s deadly serious, it’s beautiful, and it’s sacred. It ends with a divine supplication, and I don’t doubt that I’ll need the assistance. So help me God – I’m a diplomat.

Update: the Foreign Service waits for COVID-19

My entry on duty with the Foreign Service was supposed to happen on Monday, March 30. A lot of things were supposed to happen before the Corona virus starting spreading.

When I received my official invitation on February 19 to join the State Department’s 202nd A-100 class, I had one month and 11 days to wrap up my entire life and get my family moved to Washington D.C. I quit my job, re-negotiated all my commitments, we got rid of many possessions and packed up the remaining ones, made arrangements to take care of our house, and started planning an epic road trip across America. I signed official employment contracts and began other HR preparations for Entry on Duty (EOD). This was the opportunity we’d been pursuing for 7 years (longer than the lifetimes of our two youngest children). To say that we were excited would be akin to calling the Mississippi River a small stream; we were thrilled.

The pack-out was painful, intense, and very good. Getting rid of so many possessions and making decisions that had been deferred (sometimes for years) lightened our souls and started readying us for the adventure ahead. Unfortunately, it also consumed us. While we were focused inward, a storm was brewing in the outside world.

“Adventure is nothing but hardship in the past tense.”

– Andrew Shinn

The Corona virus first popped up on my news feed in early January while I was planning a trip for Fresno Pacific MBA students to Malaysia and Singapore. It’s a trip that I’ve led for the past three years and was handing off to a wonderful colleague. But my risk assessment hat was on, and I was hoping that this oddly-named Asian problem (which reminded me of SARS) wouldn’t be disruptive to our travel plans. I had no idea how this distant storm would come to define our future reality.

After spending Fresno Pacific’s spring break packing, I was looking forward to one last day in the classroom with my students at Fresno Pacific and Fresno State. Unfortunately (for me), both schools cancelled classes that week while figuring out how to respond to the growing epidemic. I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to most of my students. But our plans were firmly in place, and the intensity of our personal change kept us from focusing too much of the disaster that was approaching.

On March 18, we began our trek across the United States. We were planning to take a more leisurely drive, stopping to see family members in various states, taking in and enjoying the vastness and diversity of our country.

We were 900 miles into our trip when we received the news that cast our future into doubt: the 202nd A-100 class was being postponed. We didn’t know what that meant and neither did the folks at State who were making these decisions. The Corona virus had become a pandemic, and none of us knew at the time what that would mean.

What we did know is that we had left everything behind, and didn’t have much to return for. Our leisurely drive across the country became a race against the clock, as we began trying to outrun the state closures. We left California the day before a shelter in place order, and drove across Ohio hours before it closed. In Chicago, we bought a traditional Chicago pizza and ate it in our van in a parking lot. Our meals all took place in the car as we focused more on eating miles than calories. Some of the hotels where we stayed told us that we were some of the only guests they had; they were seeing occupancy rates as low as 3-4%.

We arrived in Washington DC far ahead of schedule with no real plan. We spent one depressing night in an Alexandria hotel, then found a lovely Air BnB in Arlington for the rest of the week. We continued to communicate with the State Department. During that first week it became clear that I wouldn’t be starting work any time soon. They didn’t have the capability to swear people in remotely, and all of HR procedures they’ve developed over years couldn’t be retooled to work remotely in a matter of days.

The State Department reiterated their commitment to bring us on board, but still isn’t sure when that will happen. They’re projecting that it’ll be sometime in the next 12 months.

In the meantime, a fellow A-100 colleague connected us with his parents, who offered us very reasonably-priced housing in Winchester, VA. We’ve moved to a comfortable 3-bedroom townhouse in rural Virginia, close to the West Virginia border. After a few days of scrounging furniture from Craigslist and being blessed by our new hosts’ generosity, our household goods arrived. We now have clothes and a few other possessions.

We’re planning to shelter in place here for the moment. The governor of Virginia has closed the state until June 10. It seems prudent for now to be in a rural area. Food and necessities (like toilet paper) are available here for the moment, and we’re comfortable and safe.

“The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!”
– Robert Burns, from ‘To A Mouse’ in 1785

We’ve experienced this pandemic and its fallout differently than everyone else. We were already planning on disruption and change; this is just not the disruption that we were planning for. Our framing of this as an adventure should have given me pause; my definition of adventure is, “hardship in the past tense”.

Our hardship isn’t onerous, though. It’s a deviation from what we expected, but there’s a reason that we trot out that old quote about the best laid schemes of mice and men. We’re together as a family, our needs are cared for, and we’re about as safe as anyone can be in these days. We have the expectation of interesting future work with the State Department and some unknown number of months in which to prepare for it. Overall, life is good.

Welcome to the world, Caleb Joseph Shinn!

It was a dark and stormy evening.  Well, maybe not any more dark than any other night at 11:30 pm.  And it wasn’t exactly stormy, though it had been raining earlier on that fateful March 2nd.

Caleb smiles during his first full day outside of his mommy.
Caleb smiles during his first full day outside of his mommy.

Lisa had been experiencing medium-intensity contractions for about the past day and a half.  The children (Liam and Clara) were nestled all snug in their beds, while Lisa and I pondered dozens of other clichés in the living room downstairs.  We were 5 minutes from finishing an episode of House of Cards, when Lisa lost her ability to focus on the riveting plot conclusion.  This is when I knew that things were getting serious.  She was timing contractions, and their frequency increased to less than 4 minutes apart with 60 seconds or more duration. (I’ll try to keep the technical terms to a minimum and the jokes/literary allusions dialed up for the remainder of this story.)

Lisa decided to employ the Bradley Birthing Method this time around.  Since we weren’t able to attend a full class, we did the next best thing: we bought the book, and at least one of us read it from cover to cover.  The other one of us (ahem) skimmed a few key sections, but didn’t do as much homework as he probably should have.  But he DID know enough to recognize that Lisa’s sudden switch to a serious mood is one of the emotional signposts of labor.

The car was packed, the mother-in-law/babysitter arrived, and I bundled Lisa into the car for the mile-and-a-half trip to the hospital.  But not before a few intense contractions, which Lisa took like a champ lying on the floor outside the bathroom, on our bed, in the kitchen, or wherever else she happened to be at their onset.

During the 11:30pm trip to the hospital, Lisa felt a pop and asked me to consider violating the speed limit.  I did what any wise husband would do, and gave the pregnant lady whatever she asked for, without question and without delay.  Her bag of waters had broken, and labor was progressing fast toward delivery.  Being Lisa, she was more concerned about ruining the seats in our car than anything else.  That didn’t happen, but it was the first time we’ve had the bag of waters break before reaching the hospital. (Scratch one more experience off the great bingo board of life.)

I made my delivery (which was getting Lisa to the hospital in time).  But only barely.  We were the only parents giving birth at the Adventist Health Family Birthing Center in Reedley that night.  They rushed us into the birthing room closest to the front door, and asked for a urine sample.  Lisa’s look told them in no uncertain terms that this request wouldn’t be fulfilled.  We got her to a bed, but only barely.

Lisa had about two very serious contractions, and let the two nurses present know that she was ready to push.  “But we haven’t even had a chance to check you!” they protested.  But their experience and expertise showed, and they didn’t protest for long.  It was time for action, not excuses, and they rose admirably to the challenge.

When the lead nurse, Tisa, checked the cervix, she raised her eyebrows and said, “You’re ready!  It looks like the doctor won’t be making it to this one.”  She quickly paged him, if only for the sake of formality.

Some minor bed adjusting followed, which allowed Lisa to get into the birthing position she preferred: a 45-degree tilt, which I carefully measured and supervised.  It was the only thing I could control and my only meaningful contribution during that phase.

Lisa’s second push revealed the crown of a head filled with dark brown hair.  Another push of two showed a very blue little face, and then the reason for this: the umbilical cord was wrapped around the little guy’s neck.  The two nurses and I glanced at each other, and, as if by mutual consent, we all suspended our reaction to see what would happen next.  What happened next was another good push, which got his (relatively) broad shoulders out of the birth canal, and allowed Tisa to unwrap the cord from the baby’s head, and also a very blue little arm.

The last of the baby (his curled-up legs) slipped into view like a greased banana emerging from a sandwich bag.  And with about the same drama and oddity.  The nurses quickly set him on Lisa’s shoulder, where he turned pink with the rapidity and effect of a Hyper-Color Shirt. (*5-point bonus for you if you remember these!)

I cut the umbilical cord, severing the baby’s physical connection to Lisa permanently, a process which I expect to repeat in various forms for the next 20 years.  He took a few shaky breaths, and I felt like a father bird must feel when he watches his hatchlings fall from the nest for the first time.

The rest of the process was less tense, especially for the doctor, who strolled in a few minutes later wearing a t-shirt from his alma mater and looking around to see what he’d missed.  There were shots and washings and  measurings (21 inches long) and weighings (8 pounds, 10 ounces) and footprintings and other processing steps, few of which lend to interesting analogy or comparison.

After watching the baby for a while, I came a crisis point.  I couldn’t keep calling him ‘The Baby’ for the rest of his life.  Sooner or later I was going to have to slap him on the butt and give him his name.  I looked at the little guy, and didn’t see the utility in the first of those two steps, so I decided to skip it.  I named him Caleb Joseph, because the other option under consideration just didn’t feel right.  I held him and, in a mini-ceremony that seems like something my dad would be fond of, declared his name for anyone who happened to be around and listening.

Caleb, now possessing a unique identifying moniker, set about working on the next most important thing in his life: getting some food.  He seemed to be reaching out to put anything nearby in his mouth, and seemed especially happy when his efforts paid off.  He latched on right away, and fed like a teenage boy pulling up to a yard-long trough of ice cream.  He manifested his first display of unbounded enthusiasm.  His greed was pointed at sucking and eating, and was therefore excusable.

After all the excitement was done, Lisa and I looked at each other.  “So that’s it, eh?” I asked.  “Yep,” she answered, “we have a baby!”

Guess who’s back?

Just when you thought you I’d quit writing altogether – just when you’re sure that this trip to our blog will be fruitless – as you’re making one last visit for old time’s sake – the unthinkable happens.  You actually find a new blog post.  Whether it’s worth your time to read, I won’t try to pre-judge.  Maybe your comments (or lack thereof) will be all the feedback I need.  Or maybe, just maybe, fate isn’t sealed and the end isn’t written yet. Maybe the end can’t be known from the beginning.  Maybe you’ll leave a comment and stir my faintest hopes.  Or maybe not.

Anyway, we’ve had a lot going on in the past week, months, year little while.  We now have a second child (who, I’m sad to say, still isn’t reflected in our blog’s header graphic.  We could at least do as well as the Team Shinn blog and put up a picture that includes all of us (and our pet unicorn).  Clara is growing into a mostly delightful young girl.  She is funny, sincere, and likes to order her world in her own way.  She can be a little strong-willed at times, too. My favorite Clara-ism is her saying ‘Yipee!’

Liam’s a tender young lad who also happens to make a lot of noise.  His favorite mode of play seems to involve car crashes and other catastrophes.  That sounds bad on (blog) paper, but in reality it’s not at all disturbing.  He became a Christian last night when he accepted Jesus into his heart.  I’ll have to write an entire post on that – it’s pretty interesting.

Here’s a gratuitous picture (I know some of you are only here for the cute kid pictures):
10Sep30-A-103

Speaking of cute, Lisa is doing well. She’s really developing a pretty fantastic skill as a photographer.  Though she and I differ pretty drastically in style, she’s bringing back some material that really earns my respect.  She and I are tossing around the idea of creating a book-length product of some of her work from the simple.life.art series.  It would be very worth doing.  Lisa has also been running lately, which is relatively new for her.  She’s actually in bed early tonight because she’s planning to run first thing in the morning.

I guess that just leaves me (for now).  My biggest life news is that I decided to blog again.  Okay, I think I had you there for a second.  Though I care about andrewandlisa.org almost as much as you do, it’s not actually the most important thing that I have going.  My big news is that I’m pregnant.  (Did I get you that time? I was sure you wouldn’t expect a second cheap gag so quickly on the heels of the first.)

No, my real news is that I’ve returned to school.  If you’ve followed the blog for any length of time, you’ll remember that I took a few courses at Fresno State several years ago.  Well, I’ve resumed that course of study and am again working on my Master’s Degree in Business Administration.  I have two courses this semester, and I LOVE being back in school.  The role’s been a weird adjustment for a fully independent adult, but the reading and mental stimulation are well worth it.  Not to mention that I have some interesting classmates.

Speaking of reading, I’ve been doing so much reading in so many areas that I should probably plan a few blog posts just to catch you up on my reading list.  I know that sounds boring, but perhaps I can come up with an interesting way to share.  Limerick, maybe? Or Iambic Pentameter?  I know it sounds goofy to write a sonnet about one’s reading list, but I really do love it about that much.  Tell me now if that sounds grindingly boring, and I’ll go suck my (gin-covered) thumb in a corner for comfort.

Well, this silliness has gone on for far too long.  I can’t give you the last few minutes of your life back, but I CAN beg you to come back for more of the salacious details and gratuitously cute kid pictures that you’re sure to find in future posts here on andrewandlisa.org.  Good night.

Thanksgiving 2009

We’ve had a nice Thanksgiving this year. We have a lot to be thankful for: close family, clients who are willing to keep supporting our photography habit, (mostly) healthy kids, and 4 good years with Maggie before she passed away. I realized when I was going through her pictures that I haven’t been taking nearly as many personal pictures lately as I did before. Here’s part of my attempt to rectify that.

Liam had a Thanksgiving feast at Chapter One on Wednesday. I took a little time off work to go over and be with him. They dressed the kids up as little Indians and Pilgrims and fed them a nice Turkey-Stuffing-etc. meal. Liam, dressed in a cute little Indian headdress, ate his cranberry sauce and a roll, and that was pretty much it. He didn’t discover until Thursday how good mashed potatoes can be, and veered away from anything that looked like meat. When the pumpkin pie was served, he just ate the whipped cream (with his fingers, I might add!). I stuck around and took a few pictures of him playing on the playground. He’s so imaginative these days! He walked over to a little girl who was playing store and placed an order, went through the whole transaction, and picked up his item (whatever it was). He’s very fun, and his imagination reminds me to have fun and play once in a while.

That evening we went to Papa and (Mayor) Oma Fast’s house for Zwiebach and faspa(sp?). Below are a few pictures of us playing at their house.

Thursday we went to Gail and Larry Harder’s house for a Fast-side Thanksgiving meal. I had to take the kids home for their naps right away, but we still had time for a little eating and came back after nap time for more fellowship. The pictures from Gail and Larry’s house are all of Clara, who happened to be sitting by the window where the light was good.

I hope Thanksgiving was great for all of you, Shinn-fans! Enjoy the photos.

Goodbye Maggie

Our dog, Maggie Shinn, died this morning.

Lisa took her to our vet, Dr. Gray, about a week ago because she’d been acting increasingly lethargic, was in pain, and was having trouble walking, sitting and standing. She’d been slowing down for quite a while, but I just assumed that she was depressed because I didn’t spend as much time with her as I used to. Well, I was right on both counts: she was depressed, and I didn’t spend enough time with her. But I was wrong on the diagnosis. She had Addison’s Disease. Also known as chronic adrenal insufficiency, it’s a disease that is both expensive and difficult to treat, and the treatment (steroids, basically) can result in some nasty and unpleasant side-effects in a dog as large as Maggie. In dogs, it usually appears between 4 and 7 years old. Maggie was just over 4.

Our vet advised that we may think about alternatives to treating Maggie. He said that most people aren’t able to afford to treat a dog with Addison’s, and the medication and care quotes supported that. We sought another opinion, and found out that treatment is uncertain, in-depth, and lifelong. We decided not to seek a treatment we couldn’t afford for an outcome that would entail serious quality-of-life compromises for our dog.

So we had a great weekend with Maggie. Brando, Tim and Rachel’s dog and one of her two best dog-friends, came over to play and say goodbye. I cooked bacon for her (her favorite) and even gave her the grease when we were done. We made sure we spent the entire weekend at the house, and that we were around and available for her for as much of that time as possible. I sat on the couch last night and let her sit with me while I read. When we were finished, we took one last late night walk. She enjoyed walking on her leash with me, despite her inability to walk well or very far. She slept in the house all weekend, on her favorite quilt by the back door.

This morning after breakfast and a visit with Shadow (Brad and Mary’s dog and her lifelong dog-friend), we drove to the studio and took some last family pictures with Maggie. She was pretty sick, and didn’t look great. But taking pictures is one of the ways we make sense of life, so we did it anyway. Then we took her to the vet and said our last goodbyes. Maggie died this morning at about 10:30 am of a lethal dose of an anesthetic. It was very peaceful; she just laid down and went to sleep.

We’ve told Liam that Maggie went to be with Jesus. A lot of people believe that God takes care of animals, and that they have enduring souls like humans. I don’t have any way of knowing whether this is true, but I desperately want it to be. We picked Maggie up 4 years ago this week as a little puppy. Over the last four years, she’s become a very important part of our lives and our family. Liam doesn’t remember a time when we didn’t have her.

I have a lot of regrets, mostly surrounding the lack of time I’ve spent with her over the last year as our business has grown, and I’ve been working and trying to be a father to two (other) children. Maggie’s place in my life moved from somewhere near the center to a position closer to the periphery. I can’t go back and change that now, but I know that I did all I could to make her last weekend as enjoyable and comfortable as possible.

Thanks, Maggie, for a very special four years.

ed. note – pictures added to this post Tues., Nov. 24.

Liam 18 month update

This is about a month late, but I think it’s better late than never to get this up!

On our drive to the coast a couple of weeks ago, we brainstormed all of the words Liam knows and some of the skills he has up to this point. He amazes us at how fast he learns and picks up on the little things we do. He’s a joy to have around and we’re enjoying him each more every day, especially the days he gets to come to the studio with us. We hope you enjoy the accomplishments of little Liam!

Verbal Words:
up-down = on/off, up/down, in/out
milka milk = milk
momma
dadda
babee
num a nums = yummy food
duck a duck = motorcycle
yallow = yellow
bus (He usually says, “Yallow bus,” as a phrase)
Ma = Maggie
Maa (drawn out /a/)= Max
yep
ow = ouchie
/b/a or /p/a = pacifer (It’s sorta a sound between /b/ and /p/.)
Papa = Grandpa
dadow = Shadow (G’pa & G’ma Fast’s dog)
airplane
apple = banana or any fruit really
a da = all done (usually voiced with the sign)
aya = water
poo-poo
pee-pee
bike
bye-bye
hellow
fishie
book
pul = pool
nano nano= no
Nel = Janel and Breann
Uncle
Aeya = Aaron
de ta = Greta
hair
at = hat
hot
hot dog
dap = Thank you (Voiced with the sign.)
bubble
purple – He knows the word but hasn’t connected it to the color yet.
hand
shoes
feet
no = nose
mou = mouth
eyes
blue
cow
duck

A couple phrases we’ve noticed:
“Uncle Aeya”
“More please”

Signs:
thank you
mom
dad
bird
duck
please
more
milk
dog
all done
cat
water
change (as in his diaper)

Things Liam can do (some of which he really enjoys doing):
-help take pictures
-follows simple 1 or 2 step directions
-identifies features on self and others: mouth, eyes, ears, hand, nose, arm, teeth
-get his swim diaper if he knows we’re going swimming
-read (He loves to read by himself or with an adult!)
-play with Maggie and all over Maggie
-bubbles
-puzzles
-points to nose in response to, “Where is Liam?”
-“Me!”
-blows on food when it’s hot
-will put his face in the water in the swimming pool

At the moment, he’s learning so many new words each day we can’t tell what they are. We’ll get some current pictures of him up soon! Be on the lookout for some simple videos as well!