“It’s such a rubbish job, isn’t it?”
BOOM. I nervously cut my eyes to the side to glance at DiploDad as my friend delivered what she thought was an obvious truth and what I knew in reality was a cutting insult. I heard him exhale and then saw him rise, out of the beach chair at the exclusive country club where Mumbai’s wealthy and privileged come to rest, to relax, swim, and enjoy real grass. (Not that kind.)
I feel the need here to explain a few things up front. About both my friend, and my husband. Because this world I live in is such an odd one in so many respects that maybe some of you have sympathies with each, and well – in a way, I think you probably should. Maybe.
My friend is Wealthy. I’m pretty sure that she’s not the type to watch her bank account balance monthly, and I’m betting she’s never, ever had to do that. Or balance her checkbook. She is also extremely kind-hearted, generous, fun loving and would do anything for you. She doesn’t wave her wealth in your face, and we have a lot in common with her, and with a lot of people like her – we place value on education, travel, and art. Things that I personally would call “middle class values” were we talking about the U.S. Full disclosure: I like her a lot.
She was commenting on the fact that as government employees, we can’t accept anything over $25 that may be construed as a “gift”. Which means that on more than one occasion, she’s probably had a good friend or someone she likes a lot or socializes with have to decline some of her generosity. I get it.
But what DiploDad heard was something completely different. He heard, again, and perhaps he was correct in thinking, that his choices as to how to live his life and what he thinks are important are not anything to value, praise, or respect.
I make fun of DiploDad. It’s fun. Husband-wife with husband the butt-of-the-joke banter is the mainstay of comedy, from Lucy & Desi to George & Gracie to Monica and Chandler. DiploDad is also kind enough to let me have at it, because he understands and knows it’s good for his crazy, no-filter (OMG, did I say that out loud?) wife to have an outlet, and well, it’s funny. Sometimes even to him. He’s not a complete wet blanket.
But I also know his job, what drives him to do it, and what he has done to get here. It’s not really something to take lightly or denigrate, even accidentally.
DiploDad and I met at university. He was quiet, had a pierced ear, and wore combat boots and a blue jean jacket with anti-apartheid buttons on it. He got straight A’s. (I did not.) In four years of honors classes, heavy course loads and extracurricular activities, he had one B. (It was the semester we started dating. I almost dumped him because I was convinced I was responsible and that I’d ruin his GPA and therefore his life.) He was tied with 12 other people for second in our class of over 2,000. He was Phi Beta Kappa and Mortar Board. He was #1 on the Order of Merit List for the ROTC program he enrolled in to help pay for college. He could have gone anywhere. But Uncle Sam called. It was the early 90’s and in spite of a reduction of force, the Army decided they wanted him. So, I didn’t get a Harvard-educated lawyer, which was Plan A – I got a second lieutenant.
Over the next seven years, I watched as he got promoted twice, learned to arm and disarm nuclear weapons, studied a language to fluency with the highest marks in his class, and commanded a FIST-V while freezing his butt off during German winters. I stayed up until 3 a.m., awaiting word that it was OK, and that his night jump went well and he was safely in garrison. (Translation: He went to go jump out of an airplane in the middle of the night and I was terrified until he called me and told me he was OK.) I endured separations. Sometimes, I just didn’t ask questions.
Then I watched him take and pass the Foreign Service Exam and get called up and start his career as a Foreign Service Officer. If he hadn’t gone that route, I have no doubt he would have gone the route of some Seriously Scary Folks in his final duty station at Ft. Bragg, NC. People are surprised to hear he was with the 3d Special Forces Group for his last military assignment. He’s quiet and doesn’t brag, but he’s pretty badass.
When the call for the FS came and he heeded it, I knew that we would never be rich. That his “potential” that everyone said he had, was not going to be spent in pursuit of the almighty dollar, the big house in the suburbs, the black AmEx. That even though he might want to give me the world, what that meant might be something different than what people would think it should. I knew that sometimes people wouldn’t get why someone who “had so much going for him” chose to be a public servant rather than in the eternal words of Alex P. Keaton, “a swinging corporate raider”. (If you were born in the 1980s, google “Family Ties” or “Michael J. Fox”. I’ll wait.) Any bonus he got would be about $500, $1,000 if we were lucky, and would be doled out during awards season annually. A far cry from the annual bonus at a law firm ($20K my first year when I’d been with the firm three months and knew absolutely nothing), a medical practice ($45K according to a friend in practice), or a banker or arbitrager (Can be millions. $80 million for one guy I know. In a year.)
I am weak. I admit it. Sometimes, the green-eyed monster rears itself when I look at someone’s wedding set (and I actually have had more than one nasty comment directed at mine if you can believe it). Or realize that no, we aren’t staying in THAT hotel because I think I’d rather eat for the rest of the month. Or at least my children would – I can certainly afford to miss a few meals. Or smile when someone asks me if my dress is by a certain designer and it came off the rack at Target. (I’d console myself by saying that I’m supporting U.S. businesses, but I’m 99.9% certain it was made in China.)
Other times, I don’t give a rodent’s derriere. I honestly could care less that you drive a Mercedes or a Porsche. Have fun sitting in the same Mumbai traffic, dude. I don’t have a Picasso on the wall, but guess what? I have this supercool oil painting I got on the side of the road in Yaoundé from a guy who had one “masterpiece” of abstract art in the middle of all his popular oil paintings of Clinton, Paul Biya, Pope John Paul II, and Elvis. I found it tucked WAY in the back of his shop as an afterthought, although I remember him being excited someone liked it. I don’t get to stay at Raffles every holiday (Hell, I’ve never been to Singapore for that matter), but I was a guest of the Sultan of Bamoun and stayed in his guesthouse. I even had my own lizard in the bathroom.
What kills me the most is how still, even with everything in the world, even with our supposed evolution of the human species, so many people cannot see that a job is more than the sum of the line items on a paycheck. That some jobs, although they won’t make you a millionaire anytime soon, are great, are useful, and are important.
DiploDad is a consular officer. I always joke that “if you are trouble or in trouble, you’ll meet DiploDad”, and it’s sort of true. He’s the one who gets up in the middle of the night in order to notify a man’s father that his son is dead. No, not the one in Iraq – the one backpacking through Europe. He’s the one who watches a mother wash her infant daughter and comb her hair prior to sealing the coffin for the long trek back to the U.S., and who listens while the mother talks to him about her child. He’s the one who noticed the guy applying for a visa was on a terrorist watch list and denied it and alerted the proper folks. He’s the one who shows up at the police station in some Godforsaken Hellhole, and even though he is male is able to soothe and comfort a student who has been raped and to push the authorities to prosecute her attacker. He’s the one who goes to meet with the guy who made the most popular kiddie porn movie ever when he’s finally caught and going to be extradited to the U.S. The guy who helps the schizophrenic circus performer’s family track him down and get him back on meds when he decides he feels just fine and can quit taking his daily dosage. He’s the one who took a deep breath and issued a visa to the non-U.S. sister of an American citizen who needed blood relative eggs for her IVF procedure – which was successful and produced twins. The lives that he has impacted are numerous and immeasurable in many different ways.
He’s the one who, without any regard for his personal safety, walks into stressful situations and demands fair and humane treatment of citizens, argues for a just outcome of complicated situations, and provides advice and background information to people at the highest levels of our government’s decision-making apparatus. He does it all in a suit and tie because he believes that if he is representing the government of the United States, and if he is the only such representative that you will ever see, you are owed that respect.
He thinks about what the U.S. role is in the world and what we can contribute. He reads philosophy, history, poetry, and other books that probe the human condition and our existence. He cares deeply about what his contribution to society and the human race should be, what influence he wants to exert to make positive change, and how the world at large is. It motivates him and informs his every action and decision.
I am jealous of him at times. He makes it look so, so easy, so I suppose it’s easy then for people to overlook him or discount his contribution. He is quiet and softspoken. But that is all a smokescreen, and over the years, I have had the backstage view. He works hard. Very hard. He is the kind of person that is taken for granted while he is there, but missed dearly when he is not. He is firm when necessary, determined, and well, scary when he needs to be. He is someone that people turn to in crisis because he is unflappable and steady, and I have seen people be grateful he is there and then watch him fade into the background quietly when the storm is over. He is exactly the person I would like to be, yet know that I never could be, because I am not as evolved of a person. I think the world is a better place because he is in it and because there are people like him who do what they do and take their rewards in something other than the traditional societal markers of success.
His job is complicated. It is sometimes thankless. It will not make him famous, rich, or envied in the traditional sense of our increasingly materialistic and juvenile society. But it is not a rubbish job.
***DiploDad was not consulted for this article. He may actually read it eventually as he told me once he “went on my website”, but who knows? I do know he won’t access it on “government time”.