Monday, September 29, 2008
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Yes, I know I haven't written anything in the past few days. I've been spending a lot of time in the office trying to get up to speed as fast as possible. I hate being the "new guy" who has to be told or shown everything - I need to feel like I'm contributing to the effort. And when the effort is being done in an entirely different universe from my previous one, well, it takes a lot of time to learn. I filled out my time sheet today and saw that I put in 148 hours in the past two weeks. Which is just a little bit more than my normal time in the studio. Just a little. By a factor of, oh, seven.
So what's my day like? Well, I get up at some ungodly early hour because my eyeballs pop open at around 3:30 and don't want to close again. Sometimes I force myself to at least doze for another couple of hours. Around 5, I get up and go to the gym, the pool, or for a jog. After a shower, I'll go catch the bus to the Embassy. Correction: I get dressed first, then catch the bus. I'll eat breakfast at the DFAC at the Embassy. The DFAC (pronounced deefak) is the Dining Facility. (Nothing here goes by a real name, just acronyms. There's the NEC, the NOC, the BX, GRD, you get the picture). I get into the office about 0800 (that's 8 a.m. for you civilians). Most of my time after that is spent on the computer or in meetings or slogging to this office or that. Our whole office generally goes to lunch at the DFAC around noon. Then it's back to the computer/meetings/slogging routine. Dinner at the DFAC around 1800 (umm, 6 p.m.). Back to the office for another one or two hours. Call it quits around 8 or 9 pm and go catch the bus back to the NEC (pronounced "neck"; it's where I live). Try to videochat with Janis. Climb in bed and read a few pages of a crappy Robert Ludlum novel. Turn out the lights. Repeat again at 3:30 the next morning. And the next day. And the next. Some wag called it "Groundhog Day with a gun." Hey, we're in Baghdad, what else is there to do?
Occasionally my office crew will get out for a while. In previous posts you've seen pictures of some of our "road trips". They're a good break, but we're never gone for more than two or three hours. Then we're pulled back to our cave and our computers, like moths to a flame.
This afternoon I broke the routine, though, and was able to spend some time doing "mind maintenance". In other words, just putter around doing nothing. I did a few sketches in the compound and it felt really good to be drawing again. I quickly realized that I need to do a lot more sketches over at the main Embassy, though. The new place is visually BOOORing. Nothing interesting to look at. The main Embassy, by contrast, is in one of Saddam's palaces, which is visually fun in a kinda cheesy way. I can't figure out a politically correct way to say it except that "good taste" was a completely foreign concept. (My friends who know about building construction would also note that "good engineering" was another foreign concept). All of which is much more interesting to draw than the public housing project where I live now.
So that's it for today. A boring entry because I've been living a boring life. But there are some things on the horizon that will give me something more interesting to write about. More on THAT later!
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
The dust is back today. Funny, it wasn't in the weather forecast yesterday. That forecast called for several more days of clear weather with highs around 100-102 and lows around 70. Good flying weather. This morning, though, it was pretty dusty at first light and got thicker as the morning went on. We all thought that the weather guessers finally poked their heads outside and said "Oh ... dust .... well, that changes things ..." and then updated their forecast accordingly. Now it's supposed to be here for four days.
I sent a memo to my boss a week ago that outlined the status of several projects we're watching. He must've thought it was interesting, because the next thing I know, it's being reformatted and routed up the chain to the Ambassador. I thought, "Damn, I hope I got it all right ...." It's called the "ohnosecond", that split second right after you hit the "send" button when you think, "ooohhh, NNOOOOOO!!!" Actually, it wasn't that bad, my memo was pretty well researched, but still ...
Speaking of the Ambassador, I sat in on a meeting in which he was briefed by some pretty high-level people. I was just a fly on the wall, really, which was more than fine with me. I was really impressed by his grasp of what we were talking about, how well he knew it, and how deep he could probe with his questions. Lesson learned: do your homework before getting up in front of The Man.
The past few days have been very intensive. I've got a report to write and have been spending a lot of time digging through old records and talking to lots of people, trying to get the information together. We're working on a lot of projects that have been in the works for maybe three or four years. Some are nearing completion and some still have a long way to go. Most of the people who dreamed up these projects have been long gone. We have about a 80% turnover every year, so I can't just go talk with the person who started a project because they've probably been replaced two or three times already. Meaning their files have been purged two or three times, too. And some of them didn't keep very many records. Which is understandable: when you're going full-bore day-in and day-out, there's not a lot of time to file stuff away.
So I operate on the assumption that the people who started these projects were pretty smart, and that the staffs that approved, funded, and implemented the projects were made up of knowledgeable, dedicated people who made the best decisions they could. Which is what I see in the Embassy and in the military organizations every day.
Now it's bedtime for Bonzo. I'm gonna crawl in my sack, read about two pages of a trashy Robert Ludlum book, and be out. Maybe the dust will be gone when I wake up. Then again, maybe not!
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Friday, September 19, 2008
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
I'm a little confused. Let me see if I have this straight.....
* If you grow up in Hawaii, raised by your grandparents, you're "exotic, different."
* Grow up in Alaska eating mooseburgers, a quintessential American story.
* If your name is Barack you're a radical, unpatriotic Muslim.
* Name your kids Willow, Trig and Track, you're a maverick.
* Graduate from Harvard law School and you are unstable.
* Attend 5 different small colleges before graduating, you're well grounded.
* If you spend 3 years as a brilliant community organizer, become the first black President of the Harvard Law Review, create a voter registration drive that registers 150,000 new voters, spend 12 years as a Constitutional Law professor, spend 8 years as a State Senator representing a district with over 750,000 people, become chairman of the state Senate's Health and Human Services committee, spend 4 years in the United States Senate representing a state of 13 million people while sponsoring 131 bills and serving on the Foreign Affairs, Environment and Public Works and Veteran's Affairs committees, you don't have any real leadership experience.
* If your total resume is: local weather girl, 4 years on the city council and 6 year as the mayor of a town with less than 7,000 people, 20 months as the governor of a state with only 650,000 people, then you're qualified to become the country's second highest ranking executive.
* If you have been married to the same woman for 19 years while raising 2 beautiful daughters, all within Protestant churches, you're not a real Christian.
* If you cheated on your first wife with a rich heiress, and left your disfigured wife and married the heiress the next month, you're a Christian.
* If you teach responsible, age appropriate sex education, including the proper use of birth control, you are eroding the fiber of society.
* If , while governor, you staunchly advocate abstinence only, with no other option in sex education in your state's school system while your unwed teen daughter ends up pregnant , you're very responsible.
* If your wife is a Harvard graduate laywer who gave up a position in a prestigious law firm to work for the betterment of her inner city community, then gave that up to raise a family, your family's values don't represent America's.
* If you're husband is nicknamed "First Dude", with at least one DWI conviction and no college education, who didn't register to vote until age 25 and once was a member of a group that advocated the secession of Alaska from the USA, your family is extremely admirable.
OK, much clearer now.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
I think I've officially completed my check-in process. I've filled out a gazillion forms and given them to people all over hell's half-acre, been signed in and signed up, been given innumerable familiarization briefs, and met dozens of people. I even recognize a few of them in the hallways now, as I scurry by enroute yet another briefing. My boss says that if I think I'm done, I'm mistaken - I just haven't found out about something I'm supposed to do. He's probably right.
We have an interesting work week. It's Sunday through Thursday. Yep, we're on Arabic time here. Fridays and Saturdays are our "weekend", but that only means that we can sleep in a little later and not work quite so many hours. Workday officially starts at 0800 (that's 8 a.m. for you civilians). Damned if I know when it "ends", since nobody leaves before 6 and it's often much later when the lights finally go out. On "weekends", we work maybe four to six or eight hours. That's a half-day, isn't it?
I think my body clock fell out of the airplane somewhere over Newfoundland on the trip over here, and it hasn't caught up to me yet. Mid-afternoon is a particularly difficult time. Put me in a meeting or briefing and I'm in a world of hurt. Yesterday I attended a meeting in late afternoon that was chaired by the deputy director of our organization. A high mucky-muck. And they put me right beside him. And I tell you, it took everything I had to keep from falling into ZZZZ-land. I never heard a word from that meeting. I was too busy telling myself "Do NOT fall asleep! Do NOT bounce your forehead off the table! Do NOT snore like a buzzsaw!" I think I stayed awake, but sure wouldn't swear to it.
In between getting signatures on my check-in sheet, I've been trying to learn as much as possible about my new job. And there's a lot to learn. There are tons of projects, all with their own acronyms, plus learning all the different organization charts for all the groups associated with these projects, plus learning the names of the people filling out those organization charts, plus the names of their predecessors since all these jobs turn over every year. There are several different ways that our projects get created, and for each way, I need to know who starts the projects, who reviews them, who approves them, where the money comes from, where it goes, how it gets disbursed, who executes the project, who reviews the execution, and who signs off on it.
And I need to do all this quickly. I'll be making decisions next week on things that I had never even heard of last week.
Still, it looks like an exciting time. I'm going to have to keep my nose to the grindstone for a while, but I'm confident I can do it. Hell, the Navy spent 22 years putting me in charge of things I knew nothing about, and this really isn't any different.
When I'm not checking in or learning my new job, I've been poking around the Palace, New Embassy Compound, and the International Zone, seeing what's here. Some of the neat things I've found:
- We have a pretty good gym right across the street from my apartment building, and I've got a routine set up for the machines.
- There's a pool next door to the gym, and I've hit it a couple of times. Since it's been many years since I've been swimming, I wear myself out in very short order. Very short. But I'll get my endurance up. Maybe.
- In the Palace, there's a huge room that's the Green Bean Cafe. They make a really good cappuccino there, so in mid-afternoon, you know where to find me.
- There are a very few interesting shopping opportunities here. I got a quick tour of the IZ a couple of days ago and some of them were pointed out to me. I'll revisit them ... well, sometime.
All for now. There's much more I could write. But it seems like this place turns into "Groundhog Day with a gun" in pretty short order for most people, so I need to save some things to write about when it happens to me.
Monday, September 08, 2008
Sunday, September 07, 2008
I'm getting settled in to my new situation here in Baghdad. I'm situated in my new office and working with a good group of people. My living quarters are pretty posh for a war zone. I've spent much of the past few days getting checked in with the Embassy, which means I've logged many miles walking the corridors to find offices tucked away in obscure corners ... usually several times, since they're never open the first time I go by. All in all, things are looking good.
My job is going to be very interesting. For one thing, it's still to be defined. For another, nobody really knows how long I'll be doing it ... nor how long my office will exist, nor what functions will go where, if and when there's a reorganization. So you could say it's in a state of flux. But that's not really a bad thing. Our mission is to help the Iraqis get their country rebuilt and on its feet again, so as they stand up, we stand down. During my training in Washington, we were told to "work yourselves out of a job". Within my office, much has already been done (exactly how much has been done was quite stunning to me, to tell the truth). We're in the wrap-up stages now. No new projects, just making sure our remaining ones are completed as specified, and that none are falling through the cracks. That last bit, figuring out which ones are falling through the cracks, is what my job will entail. More or less. And when that's all wrapped up, it'll be the Iraqi's responsibility from there on out. We'll close down this particular function and I'll probably be tasked with closing down some other shop. And as more things are closed down, more people can be sent home at the end of their tours without a replacement. In other words, we're working on a drawdown. Regardless of what happens in politics this fall.
There are two State Department-owned compounds in Baghdad. One is the existing Embassy, which is in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. The other is the New Embassy Compound, which is about a mile down the road. The NEC, as it's called, is just now opening up. Over the next few months, most of the offices in the Palace will move to the NEC. It's a modern-looking compound of several office buildings, several more "apartment" buildings, and a large building housing the gym, pool, laundry, dining facility, and lots of empty (for now) spaces. They're all modern and comfortable, but a bit sterile. And they're built very sturdily. I live in one of the apartments. It's a 2-bedroom place with a kitchen and bath. Haven't met my roommate yet - he's apparently on a trip somewhere. I was lucky, though: the apartments just recently opened up; before that, everybody who arrived was put into the trailers surrounding the Palace. Most of the trailers are the size and shape of shipping containers. These provided a home to two people in bedrooms at each end, with a shared bath in the middle. Not too good, but better than living in a tent!
I work at the Palace compound. It really is a palace: it's huge. I'll save a description of it for a future entry as it'll need a lotta blog space all by itself. We're not going to be in the Palace for very much longer, though. The Iraqis want it back and we need to move into our new digs. So increasingly, over the next few months, functions in the Palace will move down the road until everything is out. Then the construction crews will go in and rip out all the modifications that we've made over the past few years and restore it, more or less, to a somewhat move-in condition. Maybe they'll be done by the time I leave next year. Then again, considering all that needs to be done, maybe not.
I talked about the heat in my last entry. I'm surprised at how quickly I'm adjusting to it. This isn't a North Carolina "85 degrees and 85 percent" heat. It's hot but dry, so your sweat evaporates quickly and you don't feel the heat. Then again, you go through a lotta water when you're outside. Fortunately, I'm not outside all that much, and the air conditioning inside is pretty effective. Thank God!
Well, enough for now. I'm alive and well, finding my way in this new world, and having a good time. Despite the difficulties of being away from Janis and the girls (er, dogs), I'm glad I'm here. This is going to be a very interesting and rewarding year.
Friday, September 05, 2008
I arrived in Bahdad yesterday afternoon. It was a long trip, including two nights in transit. But I'm finally here, have started the check-in process, established phone contact with Janis, and gotten a few hours worth of sleep. Time to catch up on this narrative. This is going to be a LONG entry, just so you're warned.
The visit home was great. (Heck, I'm already using the term "visiting home", what does that tell you?) But then on Monday it was time to pack my bags, and packing was just as hard on all of us as it was the last time. Even the dogs picked up on the fact that the suitcases came out and I was sorting things to go in them. They got up on the bed and gave me That Look. Poor Janis, who wears her heart on her sleeve, just got more and more miserable as Monday went on.
Tuesday was D-Day. We left the house a bit before noon and went to the airport. There, we parked in the shade so the dogs wouldn't get too hot. I said my goodbyes to them and we headed for the terminal. About halfway there, I looked back and there were two little heads poking out the window watching us go away. Once inside, I checked my bag ($15, thank you US Airways) and was ready to go. Saying goodbye to Janis was the hardest thing in the world. We must've been quite a sight, two old fogies standing there holding on to each other for all we're worth. But then it was over. I went in the restaurant for a cup of coffee that I really didn't need, just to settle myself down. How Janis made it home in one piece is beyond me.
The hops from Asheville to Charlotte and then to Dulles were about as exciting as watching toast brown. I deliberately gave myself a long layover in Dulles so that, if there were any difficulties en route (like a lost bag), there would be time to fix things. There weren't any difficulties, though, so my only problem was filling a few dead hours at Dulles. Then we boarded our Air France flight and left for Paris.
I had a lot of expectations for Air France and they didn't disappoint. It started off right at the counter with no fee to check a bag (take that, US Airways). The cabin attendants were all impossibly good-looking in an elegant French way, as well as being quite attentive and efficient. Each seat had its own pillow and blanket, and the attendants came by with packets that contained a set of headphones, eyeshades, and a moist towellette. The seats all had little screens in them and the flight was stocked with a wide range of complimentary movies, TV shows, music, flight tracking, and more. And the food! Remember, this is Air France. Rather than being handed a plate of mystery meat and processed soybeans at some exorbitant extra cost, we were given a menu that read:
Tabbouleh and salmon
Choice of main course:
- Saute of beef with carrots accompanied by mashed potatoes or
- Chicken served with Riesling wine sauce, rice and broccoli
Berry chocolate cake
Coffee and tea
I had the chicken and it was very good. And since this was Air France, I also had a nice little bottle of Vin de Pays d'Oc Cabernet Merlot 2007 La Baume. Quite amusing. They even gave us metal knives, forks, and spoons. Now when was the last time you saw that on an American airline?
The only problem with the flight was that it was a red-eye and I just do not sleep on airplanes. So by the time we landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I had a stiff neck, puffy eyes, and had given myself a wedgie while squirming around trying to get comfortable. Getting to my next flight was a challenge. They parked us away from the terminal and shuttled us in with buses. And it took forever to get people moving off the plane. It took about 45 minutes from the time we landed to the time we actually arrived in the building. The terminal itself was a rat's maze with cordons everywhere and more screening of carry-on bags and passports. Even though I was moving at a pretty good clip, I still made it to my next gate just five minutes before boarding - and this with two hours between the landing of one flight and departure of the next! Lesson learned: give yourself plenty of time in Charles de Gaulle airport.
The next leg was to Amman, Jordan, also on Air France. It was an uneventful flight. The attendants were just as impossibly good-looking as the previous crew and the food was just as good. There was a rowdy bunch of Jordanians on the flight who were having a wonderful time in the back and cheered and clapped when we landed. Once off the plane, though, the airport was a bit of a zoo. Fortunately, I was met by someone who ushered me through customs and got me to the hotel. If I'd have had to figure out the process, get my bags, and get a cab, I'd still be there.
The travel people had made a reservation for me at a 5-star hotel in a nice section of Amman. Quite good. I showered up and went down to one of the restaurants for dinner. I basically had the place to myself. Don't know if it was because it was already late by then (after 9 pm) or because it was the second or third day of Ramadan. Whatever, I had the full attention of the manager, cook, assistant cook, and an army of servers. (And to tell the truth, I get very uncomfortable in situations like that. I don't want a flock of people hovering over me, looking for any sign that I might possibly want something. I'm much more at home sitting at the counter in a Waffle House listening to a middle-aged waitress call me "Honey" while shouting my order to the cook.) But the food was excellent and there was way, way, way too much of it. Of course, with the manager checking up on me every few minutes and getting very concerned when there was still food on my plate, I ate way too much. I finally got to bed about 11 pm and was up two hours later to pop some Alka-Seltzer. "I can't believe I ate the whoooole thing." "You ate it, dumbass." Finally drifted off to sleep again about 5 for two fitful hours.
A driver picked me up at the hotel to take me to the military airport. He was a really pleasant guy. Since we were running a little early, he showed me around Amman a bit, to include the ancient Roman citadel and amphitheater. Both he and my previous driver were very proud of Amman and Jordan and were eager to tell me all about it. Neither of them were boastful, they just knew that their country had a lot of cool things to offer and wanted me to know about some of them. We got to the airport about 9:30 and I joined about 40 other people waiting for the Baghdad flight. Finally, about three hours later, we were ushered onto a bus and taken to a C-17 sitting out on the tarmac.
There's something inherently reassuring to me about military cargo planes and this was no exception. They're big and stark, with all their plumbing and wiring hanging out there for everyone to see. There's no hiding behind decorative panels. If you want to know what condition the airframe is in, just take a look, it's right there by your left hand. And the Air Force crewmen take very good care of their planes. They loaded all us scruffy civilians into their baby very efficiently and took off. The flight took only about an hour and 15 minutes. I'd heard some very entertaining stories about the final approach into Baghdad, but this was pretty normal for an Air Force flight: they just nosed the plane over, threw on the air brakes, and flew straight in. Once on the ground, they unloaded the pallets of cargo and bags and we marched out the tail of the plane onto the ground.
And it was HOT. Motherfucker, it was hot. I thought the heat was from the jet blast, but no, it was the frickin' air. Try setting your oven on 400 degrees and standing in front of it. Better yet, climb in. It was a dry, roasty, gritty heat. The airport was a busy place, with helicopters flying around, front-end loaders driving by, squads of soldiers wielding big honking backpacks trudging along, a line of armored vehicles sporting 50-caliber machine guns idling in the parking lot. We got checked in with little difficulty - a couple of idiots who should've known better had been taking pictures as they got off the plane, and taking pictures of an active military flight line is a no-no.
I wound up in the group heading to the Embassy compound. We were issued our helmets and flak vests, then marched back out on the flight line to get on the helicopters that would take us in. Watching the four helos come toward us across the airport, I was reminded of the scene from Apocalypse Now, and could hear in my head the strains of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. When the helos came in, their air blast knocked over bags and blew hot gritty sand all over us. It was like standing in front of a giant hair dryer set on High.
The flight was quite fun. We flew in a loose line at just a couple hundred feet above ground, zigzagging back and forth. These helos are pretty open, so the hot desert air blew through. Helos are noisy and bouncy, with a steady WHOPWHOPWHOPWHOP from the blades and a ride like going over railroad tracks in a truck. We curved over the river and dropped right in on the Embassy. I'd made it to my new home.
One of the people from my new office met me at the heliport and took me in tow. I briefly met my new boss and then hooked up with my sponsor. We got dinner and then I was taken to my new digs. After unpacking and a shower, I felt almost human again. I did some arranging of my nest and hit the rack. Now it's ridiculously early in the morning, but I'm wide awake. Guess I'll go grab some breakfast and find my way to the office. They said to not bother showing up until noon (it's Friday, which is the "weekend", meaning you can sleep in, but what the hell, I'm up anyway.) So I'll try to find an internet connection on the way in and post this as soon as I can.
Baghdad. My new home. I'm ready to go to work.
And it's HOT.