Sunday, November 30, 2008

War Photographer

I just discovered a superb war photographer.  His name is Zoriah, and he has been working in Iraq, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and other hot spots around the world.  Take a look at his website and also his blog.  These pictures are stunning.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Web Site Update

Over the past couple of months, I've posted the occasional sketch here in this blog.  Today, I added a section to my web site that collects some of the sketches into one place.  I'll keep the web site updated with new sketches as well as watercolors.  Let me know what you think of them.

Friday, November 28, 2008

More Sketches

Here are a few of my sketches made during my epic journey from Baghdad to Kuwait.
This was at the Baghdad airport ... some T-walls to the left, looking across the field to the tower in the distance ...

Soldiers heading home had parked themselves outside the terminal, using the "duck and cover" bunkers for shade.

Nothin' much to do on a C-17 flight except snooze.

The great thing about sleeping soldiers is that they hold still for sketchy artists like me.

Here's the inside of the cargo plane, looking forward.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving and I have a lot to be thankful for:
- My wife, who puts up with a lot from me, and gives back even more ...
- My two dogs, Soozee and Indy ...
- My sister, her husband, and their three outstanding kids ...
- Rick and Julie and my grandson Jackson ...
- My cousin and aunt in Baltimore ...
- All our friends around the world: here in the Asheville area, in Baghdad, in San Diego, all around the United States and around the world ... (if you're a friend, I value you) ...
- Our lovely little house in the country ...
- A new President who will make the changes we need ...
- A country that debates its differences and changes the reins of power in a peaceful way ...
- An economy that, despite the current recession, is still the strongest in the world ...

And after being in Baghdad for a while, there are other things to appreciate:
- Electricity that's on 24/7 ...
- No real threat from armed groups, extremists, bombs, mortars, or machine guns ...
- No T-walls or concertina wire surrounding our houses ...
- No guard towers with armed guards at every place of business ...
- No need to move around in armored vehicles ...
- Plenty of clean, treated water ...
- Waste water that doesn't drain straight into the river ...
- Stores that carry things you would actually want to buy ...
- The freedom to go to any of those stores you choose ...

Our life in the United States is the envy of the world, for good reason. So on this American holiday, give thanks for all we have, and think about those people, military and civilian, who are somewhere out in the world doing everything they can so we can enjoy these freedoms.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Home Again

It's so good to be home again! The trip back had its stresses and strains, but it's over with. I'm back with all my three wimmin-folk - Janis and our two dogs, Soozee and Indy.

For a while there, though, I didn't think I'd make it. Just after writing the "Sittin' at Sather" post, I tootled over to the passenger terminal for check-in. The guy asked me for my orders and passport, which I handed over to him. "These aren't your orders. I need your originals."

What? They certainly were the orders, written up by the admin unit, telling me to go back to Washington, and when, along with all the accounting data.

"Nope. I need your original orders. The ones that ordered you to Iraq."

Oh shit. I don't have those. They're in my room. Which is locked. And back at the NEC. Meaning there is no way to get back to the NEC, get the orders, and back out to the airport today. "Well, final call will be in two and a half hours. If you get the orders by then, you can fly."

I hightailed it back over to the Sully compound and got on the computer. Nope, I didn't have the orders stashed anywhere in my Yahoo email files. I called my office and they dug through my computer files. Nope, not there, either. One of my officemates headed over to the NEC to see if she could get the guy at the front desk to let her into my room. Another contacted our Human Resources office, but they were in a meeting.

Meanwhile, time was ticking away and there wasn't anything else I could do except wait. I paced back and forth outside, cell phone in hand, trying to will it to ring with good news. I got on the internet in pursuit of futile hairbrained ideas. I tried to call various offices at the Embassy to no avail. I tried to come up with alternative plans. I tried to come up with a way to explain it all to Janis.

Finally the phone rang. One of my officemates had just emailed me a copy of my orders, which he got from the HR office that had been in a meeting. I raced back to the computer and it hadn't arrived yet, so I sat there punching the "check mail" button every 10 seconds until it appeared. Then I printed off several copies and took off for the passenger terminal. I got there with five minutes to spare. "Yep, these are good. You're on the flight."

I was so keyed up that it was impossible to sit down and relax. We were called up for processing a few minutes later, which really meant that we passed through the metal detectors and into another waiting room for for another half-hour wait. Then we were marched out to the C-17. After getting settled and watching several pallets of stuff get loaded on, we taxied out and took off. We were on our way! I finally relaxed.

The flight to Kuwait took about an hour. We were marched over to the passenger processing center, which consists of two very large tents filled with desks for processing the various types of people who come through there. State Department, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, AAFES, civilian, DoD contractor, you name it, there's a desk in there somewhere for them. Then on to another equally large tent next door for more processing. And more waiting. Then those of us who were State Department people were bundled into a Suburban and driven over to a hotel at the civilian airport.

The drive took maybe a half hour, but it was almost culture shock for me. In comparison to Iraq, Kuwait is a bustling modern economy. They had streetlights that actually worked. Electricity. Except for the gates to the base, there weren't any guardposts. The roads were smooth and in good condition. You didn't have to keep an eye on the guy in the next car to see if he was armed or maybe a suicide bomber. No T-walls. No concertina wire. There were department stores that were open and filled with stuff. Gas stations. When we walked into the hotel, I just started laughing because it was so ... normal. Which, at that time, was extraordinary.

I got with another guy who was heading home and we went to one of the restaurants in the hotel. It was an American-style steakhouse. We had some outstanding steaks served up by some very cute Korean girls dressed up as American cowgirls: tight jeans, red/white checked shirts, boots, and cowboy hats. Quite a hoot.

Later we all piled into another Suburban (they like Suburbans over there) and were driven to the airport. We must've been screened four times before we finally got on the plane. I was caught trying to smuggle a pair of manicure scissors into the United States. I'm such a terrorist. We took off a bit late, sometime well after 1 am Kuwaiti time, for the 13-hour flight to Dulles. I dozed some of the way ... "sleep" for me is impossible on an airplane ... read a book, walked around, and tried to doze some more.

Finally we landed at Dulles early in the morning. I went in to the State Department for a consultation meeting, which fortunately didn't take long. Then, with time to kill, I went over to my favorite place in all of Washington: the National Gallery of Art, to get a good art fix. In the afternoon, I made my way back out to Dulles. I caught my flight to Charlotte, changed planes, and finally arrived in Asheville about 8:30 at night. Janis was waiting for me at the gate. I can't tell you how good it was to see her again! We drove home and our two little dogs, Soozee and Indy, about had a conniption fit when I walked in the door. I was finally home - 40 hours after leaving Baghdad.

There's more to post. I have some sketches and some thoughts about Iraq and other stuff, but enough's enough for now. It's great to be home, even if it is only for two weeks. Then it'll be back to the grind again for another few months. But I wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for the extraordinary efforts of my officemates back in Baghdad. I'm greatly in their debt.

It's dinner time now ... and it's NOT at the DFAC!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I told you about the helo trip from the International Zone out to the Baghdad Airport.  Here are some photos from that trip.

This was looking out the door of the helo.  

In my post, I noted that the door was open ... or that it was removed entirely.  This'll give you an idea of how close we were sitting to the edge.

Helos always travel in groups.  Here's our partner.

Your intrepid correspondent in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) regalia, sitting next to the helo door.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sittin' at Sather

Sather Air Force Base is noisy.

Sather is the military side of Baghdad International Airport (or BIAP). It has the look and feel of a temporary installation that's perpetually under construction. Everything here is short-term: the buildings are all pre-fab trailers or containerized units, T-walls surround everything, power comes from generator units, and the water is trucked in and stored in big white tanks with POTABLE WATER painted all over the side.

I mentioned generators. They run 24/7. Iraq is a place where, if you want something, you better bring it. You want electricity? Bring a generator. You want potable water? Truck it in. You want sewage? Build a septic system. Septic systems don't make a lotta noise, and neither do potable water tanks (except when the truck comes to refill it), but generators do. Imagine every house and store in your neighborhood having its own diesel truck parked next to it and running full bore all day, every day, and you begin to get an idea of the noise level here.

Then there are the aircraft. Sather is a very busy place. Blackhawk helicopters, C-130's, smaller passenger planes, Apache attack helicopters, C-17's, and who knows what else are constantly coming in and out. The compound that I stayed at last night is right across the street from the military passenger terminal. Even though we're surrounded by T-walls which cut down the noise a lot, I was still treated to the constant (I mean constant) sound of various types of aircraft coming and going.

But still, I'm off work. This compound is a great way to decompress from the daily grind. There's nothing to do here except watch TV and read magazines about things you don't care about in the slightest. There's a Green Beans coffee place (think Starbucks in a trailer), and a Subway (why?), and a mini-mart, and that's about all there is to see and do.

Now I'm off to the passenger terminal to get manifested onto my flight. Then there will be several more hours of sitting around waiting before they load us up sometime this afternoon.

Might have to hit Green Bean one more time ...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Now For A Little R&R

Yep, you read that right. I'm on R&R. Where else can you get a 2 1/2-week vacation after just 3 months on the job? Must be the federal service ...

The past couple of days were hectic, which has been the norm lately. I've been trying to get things settled down in my area of responsibility so that others in my office can cover me while I'm gone. You may as well try to control the weather. We had a bit of a crisis pop up yesterday about a proposed project and I wound up spending hours running around trying to find out what was really happening and why and who did it. Turned out that one person had thought that it would be good to add what he thought was a small task to the project, so he copied some words to that effect from another project and pasted them in. Only the words he used required a massive effort and would've brought the project to its knees. It would be like trying to get a Mazda Miata to pull a loaded 18-wheel trailer. Ooops. So is it fixed? I dunno - I got the fix in motion and then had to pass it off to my officemates and head out. Here ya go, guys - I'll see you in December!

So I grabbed my vest and helmet and bags and hoofed it over to Landing Zone Washington. This is the helo area across the street from the Embassy. I checked in and sat down on the wooden bench outside to wait for the call. Military flights don't even try to stick to a published schedule like civilian ones do. They tell you to show up at a particular time, and then you might wait ten minutes or you might wait ten hours. I was fortunate: it was only about an hour before the woman came around asking "where ya goin'?" I told her "BIAP" (Baghdad International Airport) and she said "git yer stuff and git movin'". I was part of a group that was put onto two Army Blackhawk helicopters that were churning away on the pad. We barely had time to climb up (with our bags more or less on our laps) before the blades dug in and we lifted off.

I wound up sitting in the "hurricane seat". I think everybody ought to have that experience. The hurricane seat is in the back row, facing forward, next to the door. Which was open. Actually, it might have been completely removed. So the person facing forward gets the full rotor blast and air blast, as well as the visual thrill of looking STRAIGHT DOWN on kids playing soccer in the street about 500 feet below with absolutely nothing in between us except 500 feet of air. It's quite the thrill. I took a bunch of pictures and will post some once I can get them onto a computer.

So we arrived at the military side of the airport about noon. I checked in to the Department of State's compound, had lunch, and have been decompressing ever since. This is a pretty good compound: nice clean hooches for us travellers ("hooches" are small prefab trailer-style living quarters), another hooch with computers (guess where I am right now), and another stocked with a bunch of La-Z Boy recliners and a big-screen TV, and the DFAC next door. A bunch of us just got done watching "Twister" with Helen Hunt ... gotta be one of the worst movies ever made ... but when you're racked back in a recliner and your blood has congealed and you're half dozing, who cares? But when they switched over to Fox News, that drove me out.

Tomorrow I get on some kinda military plane (probably a C-17) and fly to Kuwait, then get on a United flight direct to Dulles. On Monday, I'll go visit with some State Department people and then head to Asheville in the evening. I'll be in my own home on Monday night. I can't wait!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

US-Iraq Security Agreement

Although the Administration has not released the contents of the new security agreement with Iraq, the McClatchy News Service (which I’d never heard of until recently) obtained an Arabic version and had it translated. You can read it here:

There’s also an analysis of it here:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

And You Thought Diplomacy Meant Dealing With Foreigners

My job has certainly been keeping me busy lately.  Which is a good thing, I guess.  When I started here, they had me doing a review of all the ongoing projects that were funded by the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund, or IRRF.  This is a $50B fund that Congress set up to help rebuild the country.  We've done a lot of projects with that money.  Most of them are done, but we still have quite a few that are ongoing.  Some will continue into 2010.  Anyway, my job was to look at all the projects and identify the ones that were our problem children.  It took me about a month, but now we have a pretty good handle on it.  I update the list periodically and see what's changed.  Usually not much, especially for the problems.

But now that the review is done, my job has morphed into something else.  I'm a liaison between the Embassy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  These are the guys who actually build the projects that we fund.  They have the expertise in engineering and construction and contracting that the State Department doesn't.  My job now is to make sure that what the Embassy wants is communicated to the Corps of Engineers, and also that the Corps is getting the information it needs to do the job.  They are not the same thing.  Basically, I keep looking for the holes in the information flow going both ways and try to fill it.  

It's a rewarding job sometimes, and sometimes it's frustrating.  I work with a lot of strong-willed Type A hard-chargers (the kind of people who would volunteer to go to someplace like Iraq in the first place).  They can get pretty passionate about whatever position it is that they've taken.  And so when I'm trying to find out something from, say, people in the Embassy, I'll get a very energetic well-reasoned well-spun story that contains about half the facts.  Then I'll go over to the Corp's compound and get an equally energetic well-reasoned well-spun story that contains a different set of half the facts.  The two sets usually overlap to some small degree, but often I'll find that they both omit another group of facts that's critical to understanding the full story.

It's kinda like negotiating between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

So while I tear my hair out in frustration sometimes, I can also point to some progress.  We've got some programs moving that had been stalled.  I'm getting answers to both groups about things that have not been answered before.  The end result will be good projects that will make a difference to the Iraqi people.  And I can live with that.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sights and Sounds

This MRAP was over by the Exchange this afternoon and I took the opportunity to do a sketch of it.  I don't know what it is about these trucks, but I get a huge kick out of drawing them.  Unlike civilian vehicles, these things are not "styled" at all, everything is functional, and since its function is bizarre, so is the shape.  So there is no shortage of interesting shapes to play with, and to get it to look right, you have to really look at it.

Several times today I made it a point to stop and listen.  I'm normally a visual guy, so it was intriguing to focus on a different sense.  Here are some of the sounds from Baghdad today:
- Chirping of little birds chasing each other around a tree.
- Sudden barrage of fire from the firing range down the street.  Then, just as suddenly, silence.
- Horn beeps from the car traffic.
- Thumping of the helicopters passing overhead.
- Quiet chatter of the guards at the gate.
- Diesel rumble of heavy armored vehicles.
- Clicking of pistols being cleared at every entry point to a building.
- Faint high-speed engine noise from generators at the Iraqi houses on the other side of the wall.
- Plop-plop-plop of joggers going by.
- Pleading of the young Iraqi boys trying to sell pirated DVDs or Saddam-era souvenir dinar.
- Heavy rumble and shriek of the big steel gates opening and closing.
- Squawk of a siren from a VIP convoy.
- Drone of the muezzins doing the call-to-prayer over the speakers at the mosque.
- Howling of dogs at the muezzins.
- A jet fighter circling lazily high overhead.
- The CLUMP of my door closing behind me.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday Morning

My eyeballs have been pretty much burned up by looking at my computer screen all week. I kept getting tasked with writing Information Memorandums (IM's) to go up to the Ambassador, as well as writing responses to various high-level letters, and editing/coordinating a new set of guidelines with another organization. Writing stuff is an integral part of the job, but this week has been ridiculous. Particularly since I knew virtually nothing about the things I had to write the papers and letters for.

Last night, our Director gave me what I think is a compliment. She was talking about how, in this entire organization of around 80 people, there are only two or three people who could write things that she could work with. She's notorious for heavily editing things that go up the chain (hey, it's got her signature on it, so it better read the way she wants it to read). And my stuff is certainly not immune to her editing. So although she didn't say anything about my writing, the fact that I keep getting tasked to write IM's on things I know nothing about tells me that I'm in her small, select group of favored writers.

Myabe i ned to frget how 2 rite ...

I'm heading back to Asheville here in just over a week for my first R&R trip. I'll be home over the Thanksgiving holiday and return in early December. We'll be moving our office to the New Embassy Compound (NEC) at that time and I want to be here when it happens. If I'm not, I'll probably return to find my desk is in a broom closet in the corner or something. I learned a long time ago, when things are in turmoil, you better be there, to protect your own interests if nothing else!

The move is a big deal. The military and US government are reducing their "footprints" in the city and turning as many buildings and plots of land as possible back to the Iraqis. So the Palace, home to the Embassy since 2003, will be returned to the Iraqis soon, meaning everybody here has to go somewhere else. And we have to do it by the end of the year. So there is a lot of construction going on at the NEC as they get ready for offices and people arriving there daily. There's a lot of scurrying around as people pack up all their stuff and get ready to shift to their new digs. And there are a lot of people wandering around looking for offices that used to be here in the Palace and now are ... well, who the hell knows?

Maybe it's time to write an IM to the Ambassador about that ...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Trip to Victory Base

I hope you remembered your favorite veteran today.  I had to work.  Not that it's such a big deal here.  I mean, what else is there to do?  Go hang out at the mall?  I went out to Victory Base for a meeting.

That sounds pretty simple, but it isn't.  Victory Base is out at the airport, maybe ten miles away, and getting there means traveling through the Red Zone.  Since you can't just hop in your car and drive, even if your car is an armored Excursion, you have to go in a military convoy.  They run several times a day.  I signed myself up for the out-and-back trip several days ago.  This morning, I put on my PPE (Personal Protective Equipment, meaning my body armor and my helmet), grabbed my shoulder bag with notebook and sketchpad, and headed for the rhino station.

Our convoy pulled in right on schedule.  It consisted of several large MRAPs and two Rhinos.  As I've noted before, the MRAPs are big and evil trucks, with 50-caliber gun turrets sticking out the top.  The Rhinos are essentially buses that look like motorhomes from a Mad Max movie.  I was busy sketching a Rhino when the call came to load up.  We were soon at the last gate before the Red Zone and the Rhino crew told everybody to set their weapons to "amber" condition.  The young lady sitting next to me, a civilian in body armor carrying a really stylish purse, calmly slapped a loaded magazine into an automatic pistol that I didn't know she had.  

A convoy like ours is an intimidating thing.  Imagine that you're tootling along on your way in to work and you look in your mirror and see some mean-ass monster truck bearing down on you with a machine gun aimed right at your rear window.  What are you gonna do?  Yup: you make an immediate, uncontrolled dive to the median or sidewalk or anywhere else that's not in front of that damn truck.  Roads magically clear out in front of us.  When I went out in that Blackwater convoy a few weeks ago, we had military and Iraqi policemen stop traffic for us.  MRAPs and Rhinos don't need any help.

Victory Base proved to be interesting.  It's huge, for one thing: it completely encircles the Baghdad airport.  And since it's American-controlled, it feels very much like America.  We stopped by the BX.  There was a Subway, and a Cinnabon, and Taco Bell.  Okay, so they were in prefab trailers instead of your typical stores, but still.  And the BX was almost like one at home.  It actually had a variety of things that I would consider buying.  Quite a step up from the one in the IZ, which is really more like a Mini-Mart with a rather strange collection of goods.  

I had a long meeting with an organization that's building a lot of our projects.  Good people, all of them.  Then it was time to head back and catch the Rhino back to the IZ.  Our trip back was a bit quicker than the morning one.  We got home with no trouble at all.

Time to post some new sketches:

Here's one of our guards at a post by the Embassy.

A palm tree in front of the Palace ...

The view from my seat inside the Rhino on the afternoon run today.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Baghdad Commute

Back on Oct 27, I wrote about a trip I made with a Blackwater convoy through Baghdad traffic. Last week, the BBC posted an article on their web site called Viewpoint: Bad case of Baghdadophobia. It's about life in Baghdad as an Iraqi, and specifically about commuting to work. I asked an Iraqi in that I work with if it was accurate, and she said it certainly was. Go take a look. And compare it to my experience as described in my posting. While you're at it, compare it to your commuting experience.

The upside to all this, of course, is that they can and do commute to work these days. That's a far cry from where they were a year or so ago.

They just don't all make it home at night.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

On the SOFA

No, I'm not talking about the sofa in your living room. I'm talking about something called the Status of Forces Agreement. Most people have never heard of it. Military people are aware of it, often only vaguely. But here in Iraq, it's at the top of the list of things the Ambassador and General Odierno are interested in.

The Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, is the agreement between the United States and the different countries that our military people go to. We have SOFAs with almost all the civilized world. These agreements cover the legal status of military members in those countries. Most of them are pretty much alike. In many cases, the countries will want to take a fairly hands-off approach and let our military justice system handle any problem children, unless something egregious happens to a local national. The SOFA will cover what our military people can and cannot do in the country, under what situations the military rule will prevail and which ones the local or national laws will cover. It'll cover what kind of documentation military members need to get in and out of the country (usually just the ID cards if under orders). It'll even cover how mail to APO's and FPO's will be treated.

Now, the invasion of Iraq may have been dumber than dirt, but Bush ensured that he had at least a fig leaf of legal cover, and that was the UN mandate that said he could use military force in Iraq if he chose. That mandate expires at midnight on December 31. After that, American forces have no legal cover at all in Iraq. No UN mandate, no SOFA, no nuttin'. Which means that a servicemember walking down the street can be hauled off and thrown in a crappy slammer and our government has no authority to do anything about it.

American and Iraqi negotiators have been working on a SOFA agreement since spring. It's been a painful process, but they finally came to an agreement a while back and sent it off to their respective governments for ratification. It passed muster with the American government, but not the Iraqis. Why? Well, negotiation is a Way Of Life here. Nothing is ever "finally" nailed down. The moment you sign an agreement, that just means you've started the next round. And when an Iraqi politician is presented with a "fully negotiated" agreement, he is not going to sign it unless and until he gets his own words in there somewhere. So there were lots of new demands suddenly thrown into the mix.

The details of what these demands were are being pretty closely held, but some that have appeared in print include:
- The Iraqis want to be able to open and inspect all our mail.
- They want servicemembers who commit crimes (no real definition of what a "crime" is) to be subject to the Iraqi judicial and penal system. Their judicial system doesn't really exist, and as for the penal, have you ever seen a photo of an Iraqi prison?
- Private security forces, like the ones that protect my sorry ass when I have to go out to one of our projects, would be subject to Iraqi law, not American.

The chances of getting a SOFA agreement before the UN mandate expires are pretty slim. The Iraqi Council of Representatives is only going to meet for a short while in between now and the end of the year, and they haven't passed their budget yet. (Sounds like ours, doesn't it?). And the two sides are still pretty far apart, at least in their public statements. (Just because I'm working in the US Embassy in Baghdad does not mean that I know what the hell is going on ... anybody with unfettered access to the Internet probably knows more).

So what happens if there's no SOFA? Well, General Odierno has been pretty clear. If there's no SOFA, then American forces will pull back into their bases, shutter the gates, hunker down, and wait until there is one. Which poses lots of problems for us. I tell ya, I'm NOT going out the gate if I don't feel like I have cover out there. The International Zone, for example, will cease to exist. We'll just be a bunch of US walled enclaves in downtown Baghdad, and I don't see how we'll get freely from one base to the other. There are lots of implications for the Iraqis, too. General Odierno spelled them out in a 3-page memo. (Again, he didn't send me a copy ... the nerve ...) One example: as of January 1, there will be no air traffic controllers in Iraq. None. It's all done by the US military. There will be no training of Iraqi forces. There will be no backup when they go on raids against Al Qaeda. Our reconstruction projects will shut down. The list was serious enough to cause a lot of Iraqi politicians to stop and re-think.

Fortunately, just since the election, there has been a change in the Iraqi's tone regarding negotiations. They seem to think that Obama won't try to strong-arm them like Bush did, so they're more willing to give us the benefit of the doubt. So maybe the SOFA will actually pass. We'll see. If it doesn't, well, I'll be in for some very interesting times.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Studio Stroll

My artist homies in Asheville are having the River District Studio Stroll this weekend. This is a big to-do where all the artists in the District (currently over 100) open their studios to the public. You can wander into the studios of painters, potters, musicians, glass blowers, woodworkers, sculptors, fabric artists, photographers, you name it, somebody's doing it. So if you're in Asheville this weekend, go Strolling.

Here's a video that they produced:

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A New President-Elect

The election is FINALLY over and Obama has won.  I'm as happy about that as I can be.  We need a new direction and a change from the Walking Disaster Area that is our current President.  

Since Iraq is 8 hours ahead of East Coast time, I got to miss almost all the talking heads that you had to put up with last night.  I turned on CNN this morning at 6 when I got up, and there was Anderson Cooper talking to a hologram of Will.I.Am.  I thought, what the hell can a hologram of an entertainer tell me about politics? Not a damn thing.  I hit the "off" button.  The blank screen is much more stimulating than Anderson Cooper.

I turned the TV on again an hour later and heard Wolf Blitzer make the announcement that CNN projected Obama as the winner.  What a way to start your day out!  I hit the "off" button again before Wolf could call up a hologram of Bart Simpson to tell us what it all meant.

Another hour later and I was at the Embassy getting my morning cappuccino.  They'd set up a screen and projector to show the election returns.  Obama was about to come out, so I stayed and watched his stirring, powerful speech.  The guy is one of the best orators I've ever heard.  His soaring rhetoric is such a wonderful contrast to the current Bumbler-In-Chief.  In some ways he reminds me of the way Clinton in his early days could get a crowd stirred, only Obama does it much better.

But winning the race and running the country are two very different things.  Obama has shown that he's smart, a good listener, and a quick learner.  He'll need all those traits with all the messes we're facing.  Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, a global economy in the pits, the worst deficits in history, a climate in crisis, our health care system a disaster, and who knows what trouble brewing that'll pop in the next six months.  Well, Barack, you wanted the job, you got it.

One thing that all Presidents have to learn at some point is that they will make decisions that will kill people.  Whether it's by deciding one way or another, or not deciding, some people will die because of what our President does.  Bill Clinton learned that in Somalia, and the lessons he learned affected the way we ran military operations in Bosnia.  George Bush Sr. learned it in World War II, and that affected how he ran Desert Storm.  Bush the Lesser ... well, some people are just a little slower than the rest of us.  

Obama hasn't faced that test yet.  I think he's got the steel in his backbone and the intelligence to handle it.  He's been very cautious so far, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  I'm pretty confident that when the shit hits the fan, he won't sit there with a deer-in-the-headlights look.  But it's coming, one way or another, because it's part of the job.  

But until then, let's celebrate.  This Ship of State's setting a new course!  

Monday, November 03, 2008


This is an armored humvee out in front of the Embassy.  In a previous post, I said something about getting an "Official Photographer" badge and how it might impress the hell out of somebody.  Well, it did.  While doing this drawing, I had an Air Force officer wienie come up and demand to know if I had authorization to draw this.  I whipped out my Official Photographer card.  He was duly impressed and left me alone.  

Here's a typical guard post in the International Zone: some tent on a corner, a clearing barrel (where soldiers ensure their weapons aren't loaded), a couple of checklists, a cooler of drinks and snacks, and a bored guard.  Really bored.

Election Eve

I was asked recently what I thought of all the campaign stuff that was going on. My response was that I feel pretty much disassociated with the election. And the NASCAR chase. And the football season, and Saturday Night Live, and all the movies vying for Oscar nominations. All the "pop culture" stuff that consumes so much of everybody's time is irrelevant here. Yes, we get most of the sports events and a lot of TV shows and pirated DVDs of the latest movies within a few weeks of their release in theaters. But I was never all that excited about that kinda stuff anyway. Being here, several thousand miles and eight time zones away, just pushes it farther off my radar screen.

But still, I'll be glad when the election is over. When I go to the gym, the TVs are all turned to one of the news networks, and it's pretty certain that they'll have some talking head pointing to a color-coded map of the US (always missing Alaska and Hawaii, for some reason ... along with Puerto Rico and Guam ...) and yabbering away about how McCain has to win this state or Obama has to win that one. Which is pretty much what he said the day before, and almost completely contradictory to the analyst on the next station who sees it in an entirely different way.

And it seems like there are only two candidates in the race: Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. I don't see anything about Joe Biden, which is okay with me since he's not the main attraction. And I see only a little more about John McCain. Instead, it's all Obama on one side and Palin on the other. Last time I checked, she wasn't at the head of the ticket. She can run on her own in four years, and hopefully she'll get her ass handed to her on a silver platter. The woman has no business heading up anybody's party, unless it's a soccer league beer bash in Alaska.

But all that will end after tomorrow. I can't wait. So do your civic duty: go vote, if you haven't already.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Iraqi Art Show

Today the embassy had a exhibit of work from local Iraqi artists.  Work came in from quite a few of them.  Most of the pieces, as you can see, were 2D (paintings and some prints), while there were also a few small bronze sculptures.  A good crowd showed up and sales were strong.  Actually, sales were better than I've ever seen at our River District Artists Studio Stroll in Asheville.  Maybe the RDA'ers need to bring their stuff over here ....

The Iraqi art world, like everything else, was hit pretty hard by Saddam's regime and then by the insurgency.  Saddam's thugs were much like any thugs in power: they barely tolerated artists at best, and terrorized them unmercifully at worst.  However, the art world managed to survive as artists figured out ways to continue working while not attracting too much attention from the authorities.  Things were very different during the insurgency.  The hard-liners didn't tolerate art of any stripe that didn't agree with their extremely narrow view of Islam.  Way too many artists were killed or driven out of the country.  A few have remained, and some of the best of them participated in the Embassy show.

I met and talked with two of them.  Both were very gracious individuals, and both are very good at what they do.  Both are abstract artists as well ... here they're called "plastic" artists, which took me a bit of time to adjust to.  Actually, most of the painters in the show were "plastic" artists ... there was only a little representational or figurative work.  

So we talked for a while and compared thoughts about art and art-making.  We took what seemed like a couple dozen photos of each other - the interpreter took some of the three of us, somebody else took pictures of the three of us and the interpreter, each of the artists took pictures of each of us and the interpreter ... you get the idea.  I think Iraqis like pictures as much as the Japanese do, and almost as much as my daughter-in-law does.  

But I will not post any of those pictures on this blog, nor will I tell you who I talked to.  These two artists are taking a risk by associating with Americans.  There are still a lot of extremists here who can, and do, track down people who work with Americans and threaten or kill them.

Someday, though ...