Monday, June 30, 2008

War with Iran?

There's a frightening article in the current New Yorker by Seymour Hersch, entitled "Preparing the Battlefield". It's getting a ton of attention in the national media. I heard an interview with Hersch today on NPR's Fresh Aire show, for example.

Hersch's thesis is that the Bush administration is running a clandestine military and CIA operation inside Iran right now, aimed at forcing the Iranians to stop their nuclear weapons program. If they don't get that, then they want regime change. Hersch contends that the Bush administration (primarily Cheney) is trying to run Special Operations missions from the White House while keeping the senior military commanders in the region out of the loop. This, he contends, is what forced Admiral Fallon out of his post as CENTCOM (the guy in overall charge of US military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the Persian Gulf, and so forth). (See my posts of March 11 and March 17 talking about this issue.) The CIA operations are covered under a Presidential Finding, which is extremely classified. The military operations are covered under Bush's constitutional authority as commander in chief. Both have been conflated into one operation that's being run outside of all the normal chains of command with all their hard-learned checks and balances.

The theme that ran through the input from all of Hersch's sources was that the Administration wants to attack Iran before Bush leaves office. Hersch said as much in his NPR interview today, citing specifically a fear of an "October surprise", or possibly something soon after the election.

You might remember that back in December, there was a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that concluded that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, and hasn't been since 2003. This, of course, is not the answer that Bush wanted to hear. Since then he has been consistently talking up the Iranian threat.

I, personally, have been ignoring him, figuring it's the last gurgles from a turd getting flushed down the drain. Hersch's article says that the turd is still looking to fire some missiles before he goes. And unfortunately, as the Commander in Chief, he still has the constitutional authority to do it.

There are only a few safeguards remaining. One is that Congress can cut off the funds. Not likely, but write your Senators and Congressmen anyway. Another is that more articles like Hersch's will keep the spotlight on Bush/Cheney and prevent them from causing much more damage. A third is that some brave military members will stand up to the President and refuse to carry out an attack, even if that means the end of their careers. I'm not comfortable with this last one. Admiral Fallon is one who was in position to stop Bush, but he was forced out, and replaced by General Petraeus. Now Petraeus is a great soldier, but he's a can-do guy, and not one who bothers to ask the "why" question.

An attack on Iran is the most incredibly stupid action this country could do right now. It's even more stupid than the Iraq invasion. IT MUST BE STOPPED.

Musings about Saturday Night Live

I watched Saturday Night Live this past weekend. Because George Carlin passed away last week, they replayed the very first SNL show ever, since he was the host that night in 1975. It was quite a trip down memory lane. No, I didn't see the very first SNL show, although I've seen an outtake or two from it. But watching it brought back so many memories, thoughts, and feelings from that time. I was in college then, with a big ol' head of hair, wide lapels, and bell-bottom blue jeans. Pretty much like several of the cast and guests.

This may be heresy, but I didn't think this was one of Carlin's better performances. It was kind of a mish-mash of several themes with nothing much to tie them together. It was cool to see John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner, and Jane Curtin together, though. Since this was their first show, they didn't have the big personalities that we associate with them now. They were just cast members, all on a level playing field. Even Belushi.

The first musical guest was Billy Preston doing his hit of the time, "Nothing from Nothing". His hair was almost as big as mine was, but with a much better cut. Quite campy. SNL had a second musical guest, Janis Ian. I was a big fan of hers back then. She sang her hit song, "Seventeen". I thought it was an odd choice because "Seventeen" is a real downer, all about hypocrisy and being the odd kid out. It's tremendously strong, but it's not the kind of "get out and have a good time" song that I associate with SNL. (Kinda like my paintings aren't exactly your "good time" wall decorations, either!)

While I was working in the studio today, I dug out my old Janis Ian album, "Between the Lines", which has "Seventeen" on it. It still holds its own after 33 years. The lyrics cut to the chase and are fresh and honest. Janis Ian's voice is clear, there's no posturing, and she's a great storyteller. It was good to hear it again. I need to get it onto my iPod.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sunday Afternoon

Well, it's been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone .... ooops, that's not an original line ... actually, it's been a very busy week in Mars Hill. I spent most of the week working on various packages of paperwork for the State Department. Had to go to the doctor for a few tests ... just had a physical not two weeks ago, fortunately, so these were just a few extra items, and I seem to be in pretty good health for an old fart. And I spent a lot of time driving around from one errand to another: pick up paintings from shows in Hendersonville and Marshall, get a haircut, go to meetings here or there. Basically, just go, go, go. Next week should be much quieter.

I've written a few times about our dog Indy, who has Addison's syndrome and has to take a steroid every day. She developed a problem with incontinence. Or rather, we had the problem, since she always seemed to have it when she was taking her afternoon nap on our bed. After yet another visit to the vet, we've cut her dosage of prednizone down to 1/8 of a pill in the morning and another 1/8 pill in the afternoon. We're talking dosages about the size of a grain of sand. But it seems to be about the right level, since she hasn't had any accidents in over a week now. Knock on wood.

Rick, Julie, and Jackson are out on Lake Powell right now. Here's a picture of the Jacks getting ready for the trip. The little guy loves Wave Runners!

This next week, I want to spend a good bit of time in the studio. There are three paintings that I want to get done before heading out on my year-long Mideast vacation. Will post more about them when I've got something to show.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Baghdad Bound

Yes, you read that right. I've been conditionally offered a job with the State Department to work on reconstruction projects in Baghdad. "Conditionally" means it's pending the normal security, medical, and other checks. They're telling me that these checks might take 6-8 weeks. Then there will be 2-3 weeks of training in the DC area before moving on to Iraq. I'll be there for a year, working and living in the Embassy compound.

I started applying for State jobs in Iraq back in November. You can read my entry for Nov 19 for more information about the whys and wherefors. In March, they suddenly called me and said I was eligible for one particular job and I needed to get lots of information in within 48 hours. So I did. And then heard nothing. For weeks. When I called the "information" number listed, I got a recording that basically said "we're too busy to talk to you". Eventually I decided that I wasn't going to get the job and so I was moving on to other things. I was lined up to teach a workshop, I was on the Board of Directors at the Asheville Area Arts Council, had a couple of grant proposals in the works, was developing some promo materials for courtroom artist gigs, that sort of thing. And then the phone call came that I'd been selected for the job. "You know everything you're working on? Drop it! You're going to Baghdad, buddy!"

I'm really excited about it. I like the idea of working to rebuild the place, of making a contribution, of gathering material for future paintings. It goes back many years: I finagled my way into Desert Shield/Storm and Bosnia for much the same reason. If something big is going on, I want to be a part of it. Only this time, I won't be a military guy doing combat support, I'll be a civilian doing reconstruction. That's cool. And in the background I'll be storing up images (in my head, on camera, or on paper) for future artworks.

So for the past week, I've been filling out State Department forms for security investigations, W4's, and insurance designations. And creating never-ending lists of things to do (and occasionally getting one of them crossed off). The ball is rolling.

And I'm stoked!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Purple Ball

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind. I haven't painted nor drawn anything in ages, and have been running from one project to another. So there are a lotta things to get caught up on. (If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you've probably noticed that's a fairly consistent state of affairs for me ... except I normally get a lot more art done).

Last weekend, the Asheville Area Arts Council had its Purple Ball. This is an annual event. Every year they change the color, but it's a big social to-do in this town. I'd never gone to it, though. While I was in the Navy, I went to tons of Balls. Every year, there was the Navy Day Ball, the Marine Corps Ball, the Army Ball, and the Air Force Ball, plus any other civilian events that popped up. I did a lot of dressing up in fancy uniforms, polishing my shoes, and buying new gowns for the wife. Since leaving the service, I've never been the least bit interested in doing it again. But now that I'm on the board of the Council, it was made pretty clear that I was expected to at least show my face at one of the pre-Ball parties. It was called the Patron Party. I was under the impression that it would be a schmooze-fest with key donors to the Arts Council, and that it would be a stuffy affair that I could escape from fairly quickly.

Oh, how wrong I was.

When a 6-foot guy with big, broad shoulders comes walking in wearing a purple off-the-shoulders gown with purple bustier, big falsies, 6" stilleto heels, a huge platinum-blonde wig, expertly applied makeup, and still sporting his goatee and chest hair, you know this ain't the Navy Day Ball. The guy behind him looked like an Evil Purple Fu Manchu from the Captain Marvel comic book, sporting a sequined jock strap over his purple leotards. Women wore, well, anything, everything, and nearly nothing. Some were stunningly beautiful in elegant gowns. One young lady decided that the only thing she had that was purple was her underwear, so she sewed some embellishments on the front and back and just wore that. (She really should've worn something a bit more modest. Trust me.)

Inside the nightclub, the party was jammed, noisy, and hopping. The Terpsicorps dance troupe performed some of their numbers from their upcoming show. A batch of Asheville city cops in uniform roamed the crowds. In my younger days, this would've been a sign of trouble. But the crowd took it as a good sign and the police seemed to enjoy it as much as anybody else. I helped work the front door for a long while, checking wristbands for admittance, mostly because that's where I could people-watch the best. And the people-watching here was the best I've seen in a long, long time.

Forget the military balls. I'm going to the Arts Council balls!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Studio Stroll

This past weekend, the River District Artists (to which I belong) had our semi-annual Studio Stroll. We have over 90 artists in the group, and twice a year we open our studios to the public. It's always a popular event - we get people from all over the country who come in to see what we're doing. This weekend, I spoke with people from as far away as Boston, Ohio, and Oregon. I always try to have different stuff up on the walls every time, and this year I featured my courtroom drawings. Talking with visitors, both local and out-of-towners, is always fun.

The big issue this year, though, was that the number of visitors was way down. Artists in one studio in my building were counting, and it seems that our foot traffic was less than half that of last June. Sales were down even more. Now, I usually don't sell much during these Strolls, since my work is edgy, but there are several artists who normally sell a bunch, and this year they didn't. There are several possible reasons: weather (it rained most of Saturday), the Robert Plant/Allison Krauss concert Saturday night, and the Purple Ball for the Asheville Area Arts Council on Saturday night, all of which might have siphoned off visitors. Actually, I think the concert and the ball should've added visitors. I think the big culprit is the economy. High gas prices, skyrocketing food prices, declining stock market, the housing slump, and a tight job market are affecting what people do. And since art is a luxury item, it's one of the first things to get axed from people's budgets, and the last to come back. I saw it first-hand in the aftermath of 9/11, and it's much worse this year. Ouch!

Monday, June 16, 2008


Jackson, my grandson, got his first haircut recently. He took it like the trooper he is. But then, he seems to have grown accustomed to having pretty women paying close attention to him.

Jacks and his mom, Julie.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Death, Trauma, and Art

Boy, that's a cheerful title for a post, isn't it? My line of thought today came about from another artist. I've swapped notes with her on the Art Calendar networking site recently. I saw that her art had gone through a fundamental change in the last few months and is now much stronger in composition, color, and, well, everything. Turns out that her mother passed away about four months ago, which has changed her whole approach to art. Essentially, she's working through the grieving process through paint.

Coming face-to-face with some of life's more brutal realities certainly does affect art. It did mine. My art is figurative and realistic - meaning I paint people so that you can recognize them. But that changed on 9/11. Suddenly what I was doing seemed so pointless, like piddling away my life when people were dying. I went in the studio that afternoon and literally threw paint at a canvas. The next day I started two abstract paintings. One was violent, the other peaceful.

Response 1

Response 2

Of course, you know that I didn't stay with this line of work. It's not my natural voice. But it was appropriate for my own personal response to 9/11. (As an aside, I've since noticed that I periodically come back to working in a yin/yang way like this ... I'll have one canvas going that has one feeling, and another canvas going that has an opposite feeling). Subsequent to these two paintings, I got more concerned with technical and formal art issues than with my initial gut reaction to the planes flying into buildings, and the abstract works petered out into pure junk. Eventually I worked my way back into figurative realistic painting. But many of the lessons I learned on these two canvases have stayed with me ... there are things in Warrior that I could never have painted if it wasn't for Response 1 and Response 2.

So now I'm wondering, for you artists out there in ALL media (not just visual arts, either), how has your work been affected by your own brush with death and trauma? Was there a big shift in what you do? If so, was it permanent or temporary? I'm really curious about this.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Navy Chiefs Care for their Own

I got this note in my email this morning. It was always said that "the Navy takes care of its own". Usually, "the Navy" doesn't mean the official organization, it means Navy members doing it on their own initiative. Here's a story that exemplifies all the best in Navy sailors.

This note has a lot of Navy-specific terms, so here's a quick translation.
- MCPON = Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy. He's the senior enlisted man in the service.
- Chief = one of the three senior enlisted ranks, which are Chief, Senior Chief, and Master Chief. Their culture is unlike anything in the Army or Air Force: they wear a different uniform than junior Sailors and have leadership responsibilities far beyond those of other services.
- AO1 = Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class. A senior enlisted man, one notch below a Chief.
- PACFLT = Pacific Fleet.
- CMDCM, FLTCM = Command Master Chief and Fleet Master Chief. The senior Master Chiefs in the command and the fleet.

Subject: Honorary Chief Presentation ICO AO1 David Eberhart

My fellow Chiefs, I wanted to share with you this picture as well as a short synopsis of how it came about. AO1 David Eberhart (pictured) is terminally ill with cancer. I was his Chief for his first tour on the USS INDEPENDENCE and even then his goal in the Navy was to be a Chief Petty Officer. His career, though very successful, has been interrupted with cancer treatment, periods of remission and finally with the news of being terminal.

He is currently assigned to MALS-24 at Kaneohe Bay. A few months ago he requested to see the MCPON. MCPON Campa happened to be on the island visiting and went to the hospital to see AO1. It was explained to him [MCPON] how badly AO1 wanted to be a Chief and that he even took the Chief's exam from the hospital during a three day period -- he didn't have the strength for more than an hour at a time. On his good days he would put on his uniform and make his way to work though the time there took a severe toll on him physically.

He did not make board as he was six-points shy. It was requested by PACFLT Chiefs that AO1 be made an Honorary Chief Petty Officer. We talked about it in Newport and MCPON was in concurrence. The intent was for MCPON himself to make the presentation.

News came this week that AO1 may not make it through the weekend as his health is rapidly declining. FLTCM Tom Howard along with a ton of Chiefs (including CMDCM Don Krampert from CPRW-2) from the area banded together to make this happen as quickly as possible. On Thursday, AO1 David Eberhart was designated an Honorary Chief Petty Officer.

I personally called and talked to Chief David Eberhart following his promotion Thursday and the excitement in his voice came with a strength and commitment that cannot be explained in words. He remembered well our time on the INDY but his short term memory is fading quickly.

Chief Eberhart's terminal prognosis remains listed in days. He is married with two children.

I tell you this story to remind you of the importance placed on us as Chief Petty Officers and the so many Sailors in our great Navy who look up to us and have the unwavering determination to be just like us. We have the responsibility to live up to that, to be the example, to walk the walk and talk the talk. It is truly an honor to be a United States Navy Chief Petty Officer and I am honored to call each of you - and Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer David Eberhart -- shipmates.

Thank you for all you do.

V/r Aaron

Aaron A. Shipley
Sailor and Command Master Chief

Friday, June 06, 2008


Ever have one of those weeks where you just go from project to project to project, then back to the first and start all over again? That's been me for the past, oh, I dunno, several weeks.

Today I was trying to prep the studio for next weekend's Studio Stroll. It needs a MAJOR cleaning. We're talking serious cobwebs and dustbunnies that could eat a Volkswagon. I'm also trying to decide which pieces to have on the wall, which others need to be framed, where they'll go, and where all the other stuff that doesn't need to be seen will go. And order the frames, get the matboards, cut the mats, clean the glass, arrange the works, wash the couch cover, mop the floor, you name it. All this in a studio that's well over 90 degrees in the mid afternoon. YES, I'm whining! Sometimes it just seems overwhelming, and I get a bad case of "don't-care-itis". But in my head, I know that participating in the Stroll is a good thing for me in the long run. Which is what keeps me going.

Another big project that keeps demanding my time is the Arts Council. I'm on the Board of Directors of the Asheville Area Arts Council now. I got my arm twisted by an artist who's on the board, and finally agreed to join it. Then I started finding out (a) what a board member really does and (b) what's going on with our Council. We have a good organization and good people, but it's going to take a lot of work to get from where we are now to where we want to be. And here I thought that board members just met once in a while, drank coffee, and voted on stuff. NOT! Not if you want a functioning organization, that is. (If my tone sounds whiny again, it's just a carry-over from the first paragraph ... in all truthfulness, being on the BoD is going to be a good thing.)

The third big project is learning about grants. I've decided that galleries are probably not going to be my be-all and end-all. My best paintings have an in-your-face narrative quality that doesn't really go well in any commercial gallery I've seen yet. But they can be matched to the missions of some organizations. So right now I'm working on putting together a grant proposal that, if funded, would let me work with the Navy to do more works like Lament and Warrior. And I believe that I can get the funding. It's pretty exciting, really: I see more promise of doing the kind of works I want to do this way than I ever did while working with a gallery.

Oh, yeah, one more project: keeping the wife happy. That means mowing the lawn, getting a new washer (our old one isn't quite dead yet but is on physical therapy with no hope of getting better), painting the house, and giving in (eventually) to her demands for a dryer that matches the new washer.

I need a beer!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Gas Tank Blues

Janis and I were talking the other day about her commuting costs. She drives a 2000 Land Rover Discovery. We bought it new and have always loved it. Even though it weighs about as much as a Sherman tank (come to think of it, it drives like one, too), it's a high-quality vehicle that gives you a sense of invincibility. It'll take you right up the side of Mount Pisgah, road or no road, and let you wear a tuxedo to boot. And it's versatile enough that it can serve as a carriage for four, or can be loaded up with bushes and fertilizer from Reems Creek Nursery. Ours has been very reliable, too. And ever since new, it has gotten a steady 16.5 mpg on premium gas. Best of all, it's paid for.

Now with gas at $4+ per gallon, commuting to work is starting to get expensive. We were thinking of getting a Honda or something that gets around 30 mpg. Since the Land Rover is such a good car, we don't want to get rid of it; rather, we were looking at getting an older, sacrificial commuter scooter to lower our gas bill. Besides, the trade-in value for an 8-year-old Land Rover with 135K miles is in the toilet.

Then I got to wondering just how much the POS commuter car would save us. Big bucks, probably, since it should get over double the mileage and use cheaper regular gas to boot. So I ran some figures using current gas prices and discovered that we'd save - are you ready for this? - about $70 a month in gas. That's it. Subtract maintenance and insurance costs and we'd be lucky to break even, even if somebody gave us a car.

Oh, well. Nice thought. We'll just keep the Tank and drive it as little as possible.