Friday, October 30, 2009

Back in Baghdad Again

So now I'm back in Baghdad. The trip was a 48-hour marathon. Asheville to Charlotte, Charlotte to Dulles, Dulles to Kuwait on the first day. The flight to Kuwait was twelve hours. It always amazes me that a big honking piece of machinery with over a hundred people inside plus tons of fuel and luggage can get off the ground at all, much less stay in the air for half a day. But they do. So the takeoff roll for me is an exciting time: the noise, the gradual buildup of speed, the vibration and bouncing, then it rotates back and feels like it goes straight up. That's cool!

Kuwait wasn't. It was warm and muggy. There aren't any regularly scheduled flights to Baghdad on Wednesdays, but there are plenty of other planes going back and forth. I put my name on the list for anything Baghdad-bound and waited for my name to get called. There were about ten flights on the board between midnight and noon, so I was up all night, cat-napping in the world's most uncomfortable chairs, and my name was finally called about 11 a.m. for a flight that eventually left about 3 pm. Yes, MilAir is not your normal airline. We landed without incident in Baghdad and I was back in my barracks room by 5:30, just in time for dinner at the DFAC.

Everything at work is changing. Almost all the people who were making my life difficult over the past couple of months are now gone - they left when the organization was officially disestablished last week. There are just a few of us left rattling around in the huge building. But that'll change in the very near future. My group is moving over to our new command, which is where our barracks are. So in a week or two, my commute will shrink to about a two-minute walk.

In the meantime, I'm fighting a cold. It hit hard this afternoon and I'm feeling pretty miserable. Yuk. I'm hoping it clears up quickly - I don't have time to be sick!

While I was home, I met with Ted McIrvine in my studio. Ted writes an online arts column that focuses on the western North Carolina area. Frankly, his article just blew me away. You can read it here.

So. I'm off to bed, with a box of Kleenex and some NyQuil. Hopefully, I'll be feeling better the next time I post something.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

R&R Wrapup

Tomorrow, I start my trip back to the sandbox. My R&R is just about over. Being home is pretty much indescribable after being in Iraq for so long. I've got a completely different attitude now about "home" and what it means. Things that I took for granted before are now things to be savored. Some highlights:
- sitting in my own chair watching a NASCAR race on the tube;
- going out to dinner and having a meal that was cooked just for me;
- listening to my dog softly snoring;
- talking with old friends;
- seeing real art and artists;
- just being in the same room as my wife again;
- experiencing autumn in the mountains;
- hopping into my own truck to go somewhere;
and many many more.

Experiences like this are not to be taken lightly. Not anymore.

Here are a few photos from my all-too-brief time at home -

We went to the opening of the new Echo Gallery in Biltmore Park. Most of the artists are friends of ours and it was wonderful to see them get this great opportunity to help establish a gallery in this new section of town.

Yes, I got to spend a lot of time with my two hairy little daughters.

Here's Janis with our anniversary present to ourselves, a painting by our friend Genie Maples. Genie is one of the artists in Echo Gallery.

Right at the end of my visit was the peak of fall colors. The maple tree in front of our house went from green to this beautiful gold in three days.

Here are some fall colors in my neighborhood.

Here's my sweet little Indy, ready for her afternoon nap on our bed.

We had some beautiful flowers around the house, too. Smelled wonderful, too.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Good Read

David Rohde (no relation to me that I know of) is a journalist for the New York Times. Last year, he was taken hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan and held for seven months. The Times has just published his six-part story on his captivity. It is well-written, eye-opening, and harrowing. Go read it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

More on R&R

Tent City, oil on panel, 12"x17"

I'm thoroughly enjoying myself on this R&R break. My cousin came down from Baltimore for a visit and we had a great time playing tour guide around Asheville. I've spent some time in the studio ... my own studio ... doing some drawing, painting, and just messing around. Most of what I've done has been wiped out or tossed in the trash, and deservedly so, but I think this small panel titled Tent City is a keeper. Art is one of those things you have to really work at to keep the creative juices flowing. I've barely been able to keep the rust off, and haven't gotten the rhythm flowing yet, but in this short time I didn't expect to. It's just nice to know that the eye and instincts are still there, even though they're not fully warmed up.

It's been great to see a lot of old friends, too. I've caught up on events with friends in their studios, the grocery store, on the street, over dinner, in the coffee shop, even in the dentist's chair. Most everybody is doing fairly well. This recession is really clobbering some, particularly my artist and general contractor friends. How some of them are making it, I don't know. One friend has a daughter who's autistic, and because of that, no insurance company will cover her. None. The right has been railing about "rationed" health care under Democratic proposals, but we already have rationed care - only it's by insurance companies whose focus is on profits, not health care. And speaking of ripoffs, I see so many of my friends who are working their asses off trying to keep from going under, and at the same time there are billions of dollars going out in bonuses to Wall Street execs who are already making fortunes. Something is seriously wrong here. Those bonuses would cover a lot of health care for a lot of autistic children, for example ... a much better use of resources than buying a new Ferrari for somebody that already has three. And I say that as a guy who appreciates Ferraris.

As I was writing, my dogs finally got up. We have a routine here: we humans get up earlier in the morning and have our coffee and so forth while the dogs sleep in until 9 or so. Then they come out and we have a big fuss over them, with their tails wagging, lots of rubbing of hairy little bellies, and a quick trip outside to water the grass. Then - BOOM - time for a nap again. They're both down hard and they haven't even had a walk or anything yet.

So now it's time to get rolling. Got a lot to do today, friends to visit, and projects to accomplish. I hope your day goes as well as mine is going to.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Picture Time

While I've been gallivanting around the world, I've kept my camera with me to capture a few happy snaps here and there.

When you go through Ali Al Salem, here's the 5-star hotel that they put you up in. See my previous post for some words on the complete experience.

This gent was catching a few z's in the Dulles terminal.

Taking my two dogs for their twice-daily 1-mile walk is such a joy.

My cousin Bridget is visiting us ... finally ... only took her TEN YEARS to come down from Baltimore ... and yes, I'm giving you a hard time, Bridget!

The three of us went to the Southern Highlands Craft Guild show on Saturday. I spent some time talking with some artist friends of mine there, and also got to listen to some really good bluegrass/mountain music from these gents.

Today, I got to spend some time in the studio, working on some projects and knocking out a small painting on a panel. Life is good.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

And Now for a Little R&R

Home. It sure is good to be home. I'm in my own house, sleeping in my own bed, being with my wife, playing with my dogs. Life is good.

Had a great welcome-home. When I arrived at the airport, Janis was waiting out in the parking lot with the dogs. The dogs didn't see me until I called out to them. Their two little heads snapped around, there was a split-second hesitation as if they were thinking, "Daddy? Really?" and then they came running at me full-bore, jumping and licking and wagging their whole bodies. Janis's welcome was a bit more subdued since we were in a public parking lot but she made up for it that evening ... (okay, that was TMI; I'll try to restrain myself).

Unlike some of my previous trips home, I don't really feel a culture shock. Rather, I feel a great appreciation for all the little details of home. It's cool here, very green, and the leaves are changing. I'm looking out at my back yard right now, at the trees and juniper and the wet grass. I'm sitting at our kitchen table with a cappuccino that I made from my own little espresso machine. Janis and the dogs aren't up yet, and the house is still and quiet. I feel whole, blessed, and relaxed.

Going out and about in town is quite a change. I can drive my own car without having to check it out from some admin wienie. There aren't any checkpoints on the roads. No armed guards. The roads are in good shape. I'm dodging 18-wheelers, not MRAPs.

We took a road trip on Tuesday over to Pigeon Forge. It's probably the tackiest town in North America, but it's a beautiful drive to get there, and we needed to do a little shopping at the outlet stores. It was so good to get started whenever we were ready, to cruise down the 2-lane highways over the mountains, and see whole hillsides with trees changing colors. What a great day.

Janis put me right to work with a honey-do list. I've knocked off about 2/3 of them and am making progress on the rest. Feels good to putter around the house, y'know? No stress - get 'em done whenever, and if I don't, I don't.

Yesterday, I spent much of the day in my studio. No, I wasn't painting, I was cleaning. The place is, to use a highly technical Navy phrase, a shithole. My studio is in a 110-year-old industrial building, meaning it has it's charms, but it also has industrial-strength dirt, spiders, and bug carcasses. And cobwebs that shame the ones in bad horror flicks: big, heavy, gray, nasty things that drape across all the places you want to walk. I share the studio with another painter, but she hasn't cleaned the place since I've been gone ... and I didn't clean it last time I was home, either ... so it has about a year's worth of accumulated dirt/grime/gunk/cobwebs. So I'm doing a bit of spring cleaning. I don't care - it was just good to spend time banging around the studio again. I'll do some paint-slinging in a few days.

It has been really good to see some old friends. Yesterday, some of them heard that I was around the studio and stopped in to say hello. Janis and I are going to have lunch with some more today. And there are more that I need to at least say hello to.

Now it's time to get moving. Got a lot of stuff to do today. And NONE of it is work!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chilling at Ali Al Salem

I'm sitting in an internet cafe at Ali Al Salem airbase in Kuwait. This is the portal for all US troops going into and out of Iraq. I arrived here yesterday afternoon and will leave this evening. Not much to do here, which right now is fine with me. I'm decompressing.

Yesterday was the first leg of the trip home. They picked us up at 8:30 so we could check in at Sather (the USAF base at Baghdad Airport) at 9 a.m. Our flight didn't load up until 1:30 in the afternoon. Think about that the next time you gripe about having to arrive at the airport a half-hour early! I ran into two friends, one from the Embassy and one from my Corps training, who were also on their way out for R&R. You know you're getting to be an old-timer when you're running into friends at the airport, I don't care where you are.

The last time I flew on a C-130, I learned that you want to sit in the very front or the very back. The reason is that the passenger "seats" are really four rows of red canvas netting running fore-and-aft, with two rows facing each other on the right (starboard) side and two on the left (port) side. If you sit in the middle of these rows, you're jammed in with people on all sides of you and your knees and feet are sandwiched in between the knees and feet of whoever is sitting across from you. If you're in the very front or the back, you have a good chance at some leg room. So this time, I tried really hard to drag behind the others on the cattle-march out to the plane. It worked. I wound up sitting in the very back of a row, with nobody in front of me and nobody to one side. For a C-130 flight, this was heaven!

Previously, when flying in and out of Baghdad, it seemed like we taxiied to the Green Zone and back before our takeoff roll. This time I was ready for another long trek, but we made about two turns and off we went. The flight was smooth and uneventful (yay!) and we landed in Kuwait about an hour and a half later. Then there was the admin of checking in, turning in my helmet and body armor, and finding someplace to crash for the night.

Now, remember: this is a temporary military base. Accommodations are, to coin a phrase, "spartan". You're assigned to a tent and get to pick your own rack. Once you get to the tent, you'll find that it has 8 sets of bunkbeds. That's it. A concrete floor, a heavy canvas tent, an a/c system (more on that in a minute), and 8 sets of bunks. The bunkbeds, by the way, have a mattress with a heavy waterproof canvas cover. No sheets, pillows, blankets, or other sissy folderal. You're expected to sleep in your clothes, like God intended.

I was fortunate in that there were only 8 of us in there last night. And none of my seven new best friends snored. So it was quiet. It was also cold. Our a/c system cycled on and off between two settings: icy and frickin' frigid. It got so bad that sometime in the middle of the night I got up and went over to the terminal. They were showing the Yankees/Twins baseball game on the big screen all night long (it played three times that I know of), but the terminal has big black floppy armchairs and is a bit warmer than the tent, so I was able to doze. Got up sometime around sunrise, about the time they started calling all the flights and the noise factor went way up. After sleeping in the arm chair, my legs just didn't want to work right, and I must've been quite a sight as I staggered out the door like a drunk. Back to the tent, which was warming up a bit under the sun, and I slept another three hours.

Sometime around 9, I finally got moving. Wandered over to the Green Bean for a cappuccino and a really good Danish and read the Stars and Stripes newspaper cover to cover. Later, I found the gym and pushed some weights around. Felt like a new man after a shower and change of clothes. Had a long lunch at the DFAC and then came over here. Sounds pretty exciting, huh? The rest of my afternoon is going to be more of the same, at least until they take us over to the airport.

But for now, I'm a happy man. I'm unwinding, decompressing, and getting ready to go home. Nothin's better than that!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

It's R&R Time!

FINALLY! I'm heading home in the morning! It's been six months since I've seen my wife and children (the two dogs). But tomorrow morning, I'm going over to the airport, and then sometime later (hey, it's military air: there are no schedules), I'll fly to Kuwait. And on Sunday I'll land in Asheville. HOME!

I haven't started packing yet, but what the heck, I'm just taking a carry-on and backpack. I figure, I've got clothes here, I've got clothes there, why do I need to take more clothes from place to place? A toothbrush, change of skivvies, and some entertainment (iPod, Kindle, computer), and I'm good to go. Oh, yeah: passport and orders, too.

I was getting a bit stressed out the past few days. I scheduled my trip for right after the new federal fiscal year. Not too swift, there, Skipper. What with all the financial confabulations going on with setting up the new FY accounts, I didn't get my orders until this morning. Still don't have confirmation that my airline ticket has been paid, but they assured me that it would be done today. And if it isn't? I've got American Express. Don't leave home without it. I'm goin' HOME, by damn!

'Nuff said. Got some packing to do. Next time I post, it won't be from here!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Still Surviving

We arrived at work yesterday to a rather frightening sight. Thick smoke was billowing up from someplace very close to our building. The closer we got, the worse it looked. I went down to a guard tower and took this picture. The actual fire was about a quarter of a mile away, right at the entrance to the base. We thought that a suicide bomber had struck. Today, we heard the rather mundane news. It was apparently started accidently by the driver, who had squatted underneath his gasoline tanker trailer to cook his breakfast. Yes. Cook his breakfast. Nobody was hurt, but there was one helluva big load of dishes to clean up.

I haven't made any posts in a while because my blasted internet connection has rarely been up. It's going now, but I'm typing like a mad man, trying to get this post in so that all my fans (all three of you) know that I'm still alive and well.

Our hectic pace at work continues. Our Exalted Leaders are still revisiting the how and why of reorganization. I'm pretty frustrated - we're three weeks into the implementation phase of our transformation, and they're still trying to figure out what we're going to transform into. Meanwhile, I have stacks of real work on my desk: new projects that need to be started, questions from the field to be answered, one major set of decisions to be negotiated with one of our primary clients. And what am I told to do? Make colorful flow charts of our processes. The very same processes that we're not doing because of all this transformation stuff.

If I ever say I'm going to work for the Corps of Engineers, or the Army, again, will somebody please just shoot me?

On the positive side: The weather here is cooling down. The middle of the day is just warm, say in the lower 90's, and morning and evening are pretty much perfect. There have been no more sudden squalls and only a few very minor dust storms. Good jogging weather. I'd be outside running, if it didn't mean getting up at 5 a.m. I don't do 5 a.m. For anybody. Sorry.

And on the really, really positive side: in four days I'll be heading home on R&R. I am way past excited. It's been six months since I've been home and that's too long. So any time I get stressed in the office, I just shut my eyes for a second and think, "there's no place like home ... there's no place like home ..." Clicking my heels together in patent red leather pumps doesn't do the trick though - I still have to get on that C-130.