Everything went smoothly through the last week of classes, and we finished our graduation ceremony today to everyone's vast relief. Dad and [livejournal.com profile] megory came down to attend the ceremony and help me pack. I'll be leaving for the airport bright and early Tuesday morning, so I'm signing off for now. Hopefully the flight goes well and I arrive on time in California tomorrow evening.
This past week we spent most of our time learning how to use the manual detailing the proper handling of animal products. I think the biggest point of confusion in the whole lesson was, "What the heck? Beef jerky isn't considered shelf stable? That stuff lasts forever!" Also, we only have authority over certain animal products that pose a risk to US livestock or public health due to specific diseases. If you bring in some exotic product like iguana meat or kangaroo meat, we may call Fish and Wildlife Services on you, or the FDA, but we can't do anything ourselves. Some people were flipping through the manual saying, "Where's the section on reptiles? What about fish?" No, we don't regulate those.

Finally we entered the home stretch, which is our last chunk of lessons on things like anti-terrorism and other such topics. Our final exam will be this Thursday. After that, we'll just do some role play activities and prepare for our graduation.

And none too soon. Frederick got its first real, visible-on-the-ground snow yesterday. It has grown colder all week. Earlier, I slipped on some ice in the parking lot of the training center and went splat full-length on the ground. Luckily, neither I nor my new uniform was hurt. I will be glad when I get back to San Francisco, where I doubt the temperature is in the thirties.
Last week we studied what to do if someone brings in seeds or plants for propagation. The process is complicated because we have to check in up to four different manuals to come up with the proper answer. The matter is further confused because one of the books was revised just before it was given to us, and they hadn't had time to update the workbooks to reflect this, so our workbooks kept referring to pages that didn't exist anymore. Plus, one of the manuals has a completely different name on the cover from what our workbooks call it.

The one annoying part of the week was the non-propagative materials test. The questions on the test were vague, incomplete, or even misleading. We were all constantly raising our hands throughout the test to ask the instructor for clarification. Just as one example, on a question whose answer depends on weight, the problem only tells us how many bags of the item there are, not how much the bags weigh. We all complained afterward, but the instructors felt that since everyone passed, the test must be fine. It frustrated me as an educator to hear that because the fact that we all passed had not so much to do with the test but rather more to do with how well we were able to wrangle additional information out of the instructor.

Aside from that, things were okay. We had Thursday off, and Friday was a "training holiday," meaning that we had to show up, but there were no classes. I spent half the day in the ladies' restroom playing with my hair. One of the things we did get to do was check our badges and credentials to make sure everything is spelled correctly. The fact that they have a badge for me means that my background check is complete. I had been worried about that, because I hadn't heard anything since my interview in California.

This weekend I baked some apple turnovers. The apple filling turned out great...the pastry crust not so much. It was nice and flaky, but it tasted too much of flour. I don't know whether that's due to the recipe or my handling of the dough. Not that it prevents me from eating them, of course...
I had intended to post earlier with a picture of me wearing my new uniform. Unfortunately, my camera is malfunctioning. Something is wrong with its ability to perceive light, because all of the pictures appear either completely washed out or bathed in shadow.

Classes are proceeding as usual. We're learning various manual procedures now, which mainly involves looking items up on lists and tables to see whether they are allowed into the country. Everyone asks, "Why can't we just look this stuff up online instead of flipping through this six-inch manual?" The answer is that the government is slowly accumulating the information into databases for us to access. The first chapter of the manual (the one handling fruits and vegetables for consumption) is currently online at FAVIR. (If you want to try out this site, note that the public does not have access to all of the special exceptions, such as seasonal exemptions.) Even when they get the whole manual online, though, they aren't sure whether they will teach classes using the online version...because if they did, they would have to provide the entire class with laptops to study outside of class time, and that gets expensive. Then what happens if the server goes down, or the connection, or there's a power outage? So we'll be flipping pages for quite a while.

Otherwise, things are going pretty well. The weather has turned quite cold, so it's hard to pry myself out of my room to go anywhere. I tried using the hotel's grocery shopping service, but it didn't live up to expectations. Though I wrote all the specifications of the grapefruit juice I wanted, they bought 30% juice instead of the 100% juice that I had requested. I guess I'll be doing my own grocery shopping from now on.

I did go out yesterday when a couple of classmates invited me to join them perusing the Frederick Christmas craft fair. It was pretty nice. Not as large as the Ann Arbor Art Fair, of course, but it did take up a number of warehouse-sized buildings. I made a few small purchases, though I had to limit myself to things that I could carry back to California.

My Warcraft characters are leveling slowly. What with my poor connection and the time I have to spend on training-related affairs, I'm not getting as much gaming done as I would otherwise. I'll get there eventually, though.
I'll start out with a little story that goes all the way back to the beginning of training. Our first day, no one brought any lunch, so we all went out to eat at local restaurants. That evening, foreseeing many days of bringing my own lunch, I went down to the grocery store and picked up a set of disposable plates and forks.

When lunchtime rolled around the next day, I happily whipped out my supplies and settled in for a leisurely meal. As it turned out, a number of other people had brought lunches as well...but not all of them remembered to bring utensils. I wound up handing out about four forks to those in need. I figured they had learned a good lesson, and everyone would remember to bring their utensils after that.

Of course, things rarely go so smoothly. Since that time, I've gotten one or two requests for forks every week, the most recent being just this past Friday. One of the other class members dubbed me the "Fork Fairy."

Our class has finished up the pest identification section, and now we're learning the rules about what our authority is and which forms we need to fill out to cover any conceivable incident. The trend of giving us WAY more study time than necessary has, unfortunately, continued. Even giving us extended lunch and bathroom breaks and letting us leave a half hour early, one of the instructors has had to resort to playing games with us to keep us occupied after we've finished everything on the schedule.

We still can't wear our uniforms because we're waiting on two last people to get their shirts. Hopefully we'll be able to make the switch by Thursday or Friday. Next Monday at the latest.

I got a bit ticked off at my roommate last weekend. While I was in my bedroom using my computer, she invited some classmates over and cooked a meal for them. That part was all well and good. After they finished and left, though, I went out into the kitchen to find that my frying pan, which I had bought in California and brought all the way over here in my suitcase, had developed a number of scratches in the non-stick surface. Clearly my roommate used it in preparing the meal, but didn't know how to take proper care of it. I was ready to bawl her out for it, but she didn't come back that day until after I had gone to bed. Instead, I decided that I would just keep all of my cooking supplies in my closet and only bring them out to the kitchen when I was using them.

I'm also frustrated with the hotel's housekeeping staff. Not only do they come on days they aren't supposed to (my roommate and I signed up, in writing, for Monday/Thursday service, and I've reminded the front desk THREE TIMES since then), they do all kinds of things that range from weird (such as occasionally leaving my sink and bathtub drains closed) to downright annoying (such as washing the bathroom sink soap dishes by putting them in the dishwasher) and even slightly dangerous (such as jostling the electric heating elements on the stove out of their slots when cleaning and not putting them back). The worst thing they've done is that, while cleaning my room on one of the days they weren't supposed to be doing it, they took my personal hand towel. As soon as I came back from training and realized it was missing, I reported it to the front desk, with a full description to distinguish it from the hotel towels. (Aside from being somewhat white, it doesn't even look the same. It's half the thickness, for one thing.) That was a week ago, and they still haven't found it. I'm just afraid someone on the housekeeping staff thought it was "defective" and threw it away, and now they don't want to admit it.

On the bright side, the new Warcraft expansion comes out this Thursday. My guild has been making a last effort at clearing the current raid instances, and we had an exciting weekend of progress. We got as far as killing Brutallus, the second boss in Sunwell Plateau, the hardest 25-person raid in the current game. (Granted it is far easier now than when it was first released, but still, not everyone can do it.) I'm just sorry that the hotel wireless connection is laggy and unreliable. (I disconnected three times during our successful attempt on Brutallus, so I wasn't much help.) A group of us here that play Warcraft are planning on going out together to purchase our copies of the expansion. It's kind of a shame that we can't take any days off to play, but I'm sure the first couple days will have a lot of lag and server crashes anyway, so we won't be too far behind.
This week at the professional development center we finished up the last of our pest identification classes. The way these classes are designed, the instructor lectures with PowerPoint for a while and then gives us several hours to look at our samples under microscopes. Last Friday, when we were doing caterpillars, we had the entire eight hour day scheduled with nothing but examining samples. This Wednesday we had six free hours for beetles, and then another several hours for beetle larvae on Thursday.

Considering that we don't have to memorize the samples, we just have to be able to identify them by comparing them with diagrams and descriptions in our books, it doesn't take that long. In fact, I got through the samples by looking at them once, and I was done, with hours to go before we could leave at the end of the day. No problem, though, I just pulled out one of my novels and sat there reading for the duration.

That is, until Thursday morning, when the instructor dropped this bombshell on us: "On CBP time, you can only read CBP-approved material." We are apparently not allowed to bring in reading material of any kind (not just novels but also things like newspapers) to fill our time during class when we have nothing else to do. Our fourth week into the course, and this is the first time anyone has said such a thing. We are also not allowed to listen to music because wearing earphones is a violation of the uniform code. We can't put our heads down and sleep, either; we were warned that students have been fired for sleeping during class time before. By that point, I was so annoyed that I burst out, "Well, how about staring blankly off into space, is that still allowed?"

After that, the instructor felt guilty and went to fetch a collection of CBP-approved material for us to read. This included the official CBP magazine, entomology books, a couple history/culture-related books, and the muster binder. (This is a binder filled with printouts of reports detailing various smuggling methods that have been uncovered and lists of wanted fugitives.) I grabbed a book called Understanding Arabs, which was interesting enough. I finished it by Friday, though. I hope the remainder of our classes don't have so much dead time, because entomology texts are not my idea of a compelling read.

Another incident this week is that one member of the class flunked out. This happens by scoring lower than 80% on both a test and a retest. The tests are so mind-numbingly easy that I didn't believe it at first when I heard the news.

But then, I'm also surprised when other members of the class fail to notice study methods that would make their lives sooo much less stressful. For example, with the beetles, they tell us what the host of each beetle is. This information will be given on the test. Though we have 30 beetles to identify, there may only be 4 beetles that are found on wood, for example. Thus, once you know that it's a wood beetle, you only have to choose among 4 possibilities, of which only two actually resemble each other (with differently shaped antennae to tell them apart). What amazed me was that some people in the class didn't think to check the host before trying to identify the beetle. Well, sure, it's going to be hard if you're picking one out of 30 when you could be picking one out of 4. Whenever someone asked me for study advice, "Check the host first!" is what I answered. It seems blindingly obvious to me, but I guess people miss things when they stress out.

And, I imagine, this is why they give us so much dead time during class. If everyone studied the most efficient way, we could cut out all that time and go home a week earlier. <sigh>

Friday we had our practical lessons on pest interception. The instructor brought in knives and cutting boards for each of us and supplied us with a number of produce items purchased from a local organic grocery store. We had to cut open the various fruits and vegetables (and flowers) and examine them for pests. They even supplied us with several pumpkins for us to "check for pests" by carving faces into them. ^_^ The people in my row decorated our pumpkin with various pieces of the vegetables we were examining to make the pumpkin look like a beetle. Once that was put on display, bunches of the other instructors in the facility came in to snap pictures of it.

Friday night I was invited to attend a Halloween party that one of my classmates was throwing. I baked ginger cookies and brought them. It turned out to be the most sedate Halloween party I've ever attended. When I walked in, everyone was sitting around just staring at each other. It took considerable effort to get some conversation going; there were no games or music or anything planned. Once people got to talking, it went okay. If I had known it would be so low-key, though, I probably would have skipped it to go raiding with my Warcraft guild instead. They had fun killing Illidan (final boss of Black Temple) for the first time.

Another issue that cropped up this week is that my roommate told me she expects her brother and boyfriend to come visit for a week. She expects they will be very noisy, so she requested to move to a single room. However, the manager told her that if she moved to a single room, then I would have to move to a single room as well. Single rooms don't have ovens in their kitchens. I said flat out that I didn't want to move because I didn't want to lose my kitchen. I suggested that she see if one of the other women in single rooms would switch with her, but apparently they don't want to go to the trouble of moving all their accumulated stuff. (If she had asked earlier, like when we first moved in, someone would likely have agreed.) I don't know how this is going to turn out. I don't mind if she has visitors, I just hope they don't have wild parties until the wee hours every night.

Next week we will be moving on to the "regulatory decision making" portion of the course. There will be lessons on such things as smuggling, ag bioterrorism, and quality assurance. We are going to move out of our current classroom (which is a lab) to a more standard classroom. We will also be closer to wearing our official uniforms. We had them all delivered over a week ago, but half the class had to return items that didn't fit properly. We have to wait until everyone has enough parts of the uniform to wear before we can switch over. The replacement pieces are starting to trickle in, so it won't be long now.
This past week has been devoted to identifying insects. The majority of the samples are actually the insect larvae, because those are what we are most likely to encounter when we examine the stuff that comes across the border.

Ever spend eight hours counting hairs on caterpillars under a microscope?

The way the system works, if we intercept any bugs or pests at our ports, we have to send the bug to an official identifier to determine whether the item needs to be treated in some fashion, or whether the pest is okay to let into the country (because we already have it here). This isn't so much a problem when searching passenger luggage, because we just confiscate the item and the passenger never gets it back anyway. But in cargo, when someone brings in a shipment of produce worth thousands (or even millions) of dollars, they really want to know in a hurry whether they can bring it in to sell or whether something has to be done with it. That's why they train the port agriculture specialists to recognize commonly intercepted pests. If the person at the port recognizes a specific pest correctly a certain number of times, that person gets "release authority" for that pest, which means the person can make the decision on the spot about what to do rather than wait for the identifier.

From our training here, we will get release authority over certain things, depending on whether we answer the questions correctly on our tests.

This week we're going to switch to a new unit on beetle larvae. After that we will start practicing actual interception; that is, we have to cut open fruit and such to search for bugs.
I had a lovely visit with my parents last weekend. They drove me around shopping, and we paid a visit to some local wineries plus a nearby outlet mall. [livejournal.com profile] megory was able to get a pair of shoes just like my new ones for a considerable discount.

The training week started with our first test. We will be having 12 tests over the course of the 10-week program, and we need 80% on each test to pass. After the test, we started working on identifying plant diseases and weed seeds. They gave us samples to look at, and we matched them to illustrations and samples in our study booklets. We had our test over that material on Friday and then moved on to the entomology segment. We will be doing the same thing--looking at bugs preserved in alcohol and matching them with illustrations and an identification key. The nice thing is that we don't have to memorize the names of everything, we just have to know how to look them up in our reference books. That makes the tests relatively easy.

On Friday, some boxes of our new uniforms arrived. Not everyone has all the pieces yet, though. For example, I have the pants and shoes but not the shirts. We won't start wearing them until everyone in the class has at least one full set, so that we all match.

In my spare time, I've gotten rather addicted to the Animal Planet channel, which I've never had before. I've also started working out a bit in the evenings, mainly because sitting in a classroom for eight hours a day can't possibly be very good for me.

I discovered that several other members of the class are also Warcraft players. We decided to start new characters together on a server to form our own CBP guild, just for playing around.

My main guild, Wicked Claw, has been working on making further progress in Black Temple now that the latest patch has made the bosses easier. Last night we killed Reliquary of Souls and Mother Sharaz, both of which were new for us. We were hoping to go back and finish the last two encounters, but it seems the instance servers are all down tonight, so we'll have to try again next week.
We've been taking some actual lessons the past couple days, though a lot of the information is the same as the online lessons I studied before coming here. Our first test is going to be next Wednesday. Some of the instructors are saying specific things like "highlight this" and "you don't have to remember that" to give us an idea of the questions that will be asked. In general, the attitude here is that we don't have to know all the answers, we just have to know how to find the answers.

Another thing they spend a great deal of time on is the concept of integrity, which is one of our Core Values. We had a four-hour lecture on anti-corruption, explaining the kinds of things that can be considered corruption and some of the warning signs and how to report it. For example, if someone who had previously been begging for lunch money suddenly shows up in a flashy new sports car? Yeah, a bit of common sense there. Considering that we have the authority to search people's belongings, vehicles, and even their bodies without any kind of warrant, and we may have the final word on what people and merchandise can enter the country, it's important to keep everyone honest.

Today we are scheduled to have a class on weapon safety, though we won't actually be armed. The most we will have is a knife for cutting open packages to inspect.

Yesterday we were measured for our official uniforms. They are issuing us a certain number of work uniform items and dress uniform items, including our formal "Smokey the Bear" hat (that we will only wear once). We will later be given a "uniform allowance" of several hundred dollars to buy additional items as necessary. The dress code where the uniforms are concerned has a lot of quirky rules. For instance, one may wear an undershirt with the short-sleeved version of the shirt, but it must be white...and one may wear an undershirt with the long-sleeved version of the shirt, but it must be black. Go figure.

My parents are planning to drive down today and stay for the weekend, so we will likely be doing some sightseeing in D.C. I hope the weather stays nice.
I started out my journey with a bit of panic ~7pm Sunday night, when I looked up the BART schedule and found that the earliest train would get me to the airport (international terminal) at 5:30am, while my plane was scheduled to leave (from the domestic terminal) at 6:10am. Luckily, [livejournal.com profile] mangaroo was able to suggest an airport shuttle service that could get me there earlier, even on such short notice. They came to pick me up at 4am Monday morning, and I was off.

The flight was turbulent in places, but other than that, uneventful. For those of us traveling through Chicago, that is. For the poor guy who had the later flight through Texas, such was not the case, and he wound up delayed by over an hour.

We checked in to the hotel, where I was assigned to share a suite with another woman from my San Francisco group. The suite consists of two private bedrooms, each with its own bathroom attached. The bedrooms open onto a shared living/dining/kitchen area. The kitchen comes with a refrigerator, four-burner stove, coffee maker, toaster, and dishwasher. (I will be hard-pressed to find an apartment this nice when I move back to California...) There is also an organic grocery store about a block away, which is convenient. I went a bit overboard on my first shopping spree, though, purchasing four bags full of items that I then had to lug back to my room. It's a good thing I've had practice carrying heavy bags around!

We get a free breakfast buffet every day. It's not just danishes and coffee, either, it's a full spread, including scrambled eggs, potatoes, biscuits, and various types of cereal. At 7:30am, some of the instructors showed up to drive us all to the training center. (There are five government-owned Suburbans that are assigned to our class, which we can use for traveling within an 8 mile radius of our hotel.) We spent most of the day on orientation-type lectures. At the very end, we were sent to pick up our off-the-shelf trainee uniforms.

This turned into a bit of an issue for some of the female members of the class, because the trainee uniforms are all designed for men, in male sizes. I had submitted my waist and hip measurements, and wound up being assigned pants with a waist two inches wider than my hip measurement. I have no idea why they picked that number, but they were HUGE. They had to keep giving me incrementally smaller sizes for me to try on, and I ended up one of the last two to finish (along with my roommate, who had the same problem). The size I ended up with is slightly shorter in the leg than I would prefer, but they didn't have anything else in that waist size that wouldn't drag on the ground.

Fortunately, later in the week we will be professionally measured for our official uniforms, which will be delivered in about three weeks or so.

On our lunch break, we were sent out to a nearby strip mall to buy food, since no one had brought any lunch. (Not everyone had the opportunity to buy any food the evening before.) While we sat around eating and chatting, I found out that one of the other women from my class (the one not my roommate) also plays Warcraft.

The hotel where we're staying is quite nice, as you may have gathered. They even have a grocery service where we can submit a list of groceries and they will go out and buy everything, delivering the items to the room for free. (We pay for the groceries, of course, but not for the delivery.) That's very convenient if one happens to want food that's not organic, and doesn't want to go through the trouble of signing out one of the government vehicles to drive around shopping. The downside of having such an easy time cooking supper is that not everyone is a good cook. A short while ago (while I was in the middle of trying to set up my internet connection), someone burnt their steak, setting off the fire alarm and sending everyone out the emergency exits. I sure hope that doesn't happen often...



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