Saturday, January 30, 2010


We're not in Baghdad anymore, Toto! Six inches of heavy, wet snow blanketed the area last night. I-40 and I-26 were shut down for a while. The weather guessers were guessing about a foot of snow in our area, but it didn't happen - we got a smaller amount of heavier stuff instead. So I got to spend a couple of hours outside today, shoveling our steep driveway. We have to do this because our driveway is steep and, as I learned during our first winter here, if I don't shovel the snow early, it turns to ice later on and is much harder to get rid of.

As discussed in my last post, I've continued doing a lot of nothing during my visit home. In the past week, I visited with friends, took the truck, Land Rover, and computer to their respective shops for some maintenance and minor repairs, and eaten way too much good food. We saw Inglorious Basterds the other day and Public Enemies a day or so later - both of which were extremely good and both of which are much better films than Avatar.

Among the old friends I've visited with this week are some artists. Two of them have done some work that I think is wonderful. Virginia Derryberry is the chair of the Department of Art and UNC Asheville. She was one of my instructors when I went through the program in 2000-2003. Her recent work is based on mythology, using contemporary real-world people as her models, including her son, daughter, son-in-law, students, dogs, and friends. They're beautifully painted works. Another is Genie Maples. Her studio is down the hall from mine. She's an abstract painter and her work has become much stronger, more subtle, better composed, and better painted. Images on the web look good but they cannot compare to the beauty of the real paintings. Virginia and Genie could not be more different in temperament and painting styles, but they're both outstanding artists. Go take a look.

One last note on politics. It appears to me that President Obama read my last blog post and took action on some parts of it. He opened discussions with the Republicans the other day. From what I saw on the tube, it was a bit like a first marriage-counseling session when both sides are still angry. Still, it was a start. Let's hope that both sides keep it up. Better yet, get the Senate and House leaders involved as well, on both sides. And if they don't want to do it, fire them.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Chilling at Home

There's a lot to be said for not doing much. For making a totally ordinary breakfast or lunch. For lying on the couch and watching the football playoffs, even if you're not a fan of football. (Yay, Saints! Boo, Colts!) For taking the dogs on their walk twice a day. For hanging out with friends and talking about whatever comes up. For going to a movie. All these little things that we normally take for granted have a lot going for them. It seems like we have to do without in order to really appreciate them.

Janis and I went to P.F. Chang's a few nights ago with some friends. The food, as always, was fabulous, service was excellent, and the crowd was animated and noisy. It was so nice to have a great dinner that was cooked just for me. We're big fans of P.F. Chang's and go whenever we can.

We also went to see Avatar in 3D. It was fun, but definitely not a "great" movie. I thought that the plot was stolen directly from Dances With Wolves with a twist to the end; a friend said it was more like Ferngully (which I never saw). Whatever the case, it was very predictable: I knew what would happen long before it did. Still, it was good entertainment with fantastic graphics. Much better on a big screen than it would be on your home TV with a Netflix DVD.

This week, I'll be doing maintenance. My truck's Check Engine light is on - I had it looked at by a local shop, but it came back on again within a couple of miles, so now it needs to go to a dealer. The Land Rover needs to go back in for routine maintenance. My MacBook has to go into the computer shop because of some issues with the hard drive. I replaced the hard drive with a bigger one last year and it isn't perfectly compatible. Minor annoyances: you get "stuff", then sooner or later, you have to repair "stuff".

As I write this, it's early in the morning and I'm the only one up. My body clock is still slowly migrating from Baghdad to Mars Hill. So the house is quiet and Janis and the dogs are still sleeping ... and one of the dogs is having a great dream and yipping away at something. Rabbits, maybe?

Since being home, I've been inundated with politics on TV. I can pretty much ignore it in Iraq, but not here. Turn on the news and everything is tied to politics. So here are a few comments.
- This past year, despite all the promises from both parties, Washington has been as polarized as it has ever been. The Democrats are guilty of the same hubris that the Republicans displayed under Bush, only at least they're not goose-stepping off to a new war. The Democrats could have accomplished so much more if they'd worked together. But as a wise man once noted, "I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat." By falling into business-as-usual, Democrats squandered their opportunity.
- To be an elected Republican these days means to have no mind of your own. They're the party of Just Say No. Where the Democrats have no party discipline whatsoever, the Republicans are like clones of each other and fall mindlessly into line behind whatever their leaders tell them to do.
- Both sides are doing a great disservice to this nation. I want my leaders to work together to address the issues facing us right now: the stagnant economy, lack of jobs, Wall Street excesses, health care, growing deficit, conflict with Islamic extremism, and health care, among others. Instead, leaders on both sides are more concerned with making political points than with actually getting things done.
- The election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts may be the wake-up call that Democrats needed. It seems like they finally got the message that they need to refocus. Like Bill Clinton said, "It's the economy, stupid." Dems have about nine months to get themselves re-tooled for the mid-term elections. Whether they do it remains to be seen.
- Republicans, meanwhile, are undergoing a hostile takeover by the Tea Party movement. The Tea Partyers are taking over the local Republican party positions that form the structure and determines who gets nominated. That's bad news for the party. Republicans are already a bit too far to the right for the majority of the country, but the Tea Partyers are way too far to the right. What I see happening is that the Tea Partyers ensure that only far-right candidates get nominated, but then they'll get clobbered in the elections. So the best news for the Democrats (as a party) is that the Tea Party is taking over the Republican Party.

So. That's my punditry for today. I hear Janis banging around in the other room now, so off I go.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Home Again

It sure is good to be back at home again. (Something about that line brings back the sappy John Denver song ... normally I'm not a fan of his, but that song is very apropos right now). Had a long trip home and have been going pretty hard since arriving here.

On Saturday, I was up early and was glad to see it was going to be a bright, clear day. I had to brief my boss on a significant restructuring of six of my programs. He had just returned from R&R a few days before and I needed to make sure he fully understood what I was proposing. He seems to now ... of course, I won't really know until I go back in a couple of weeks. Then I went back to grab my bags and throw them into the truck for the trip to the passenger terminal at Sather. As soon as the truck was loaded, both the driver and I were wondering "where the hell did all this fog come from?". Yes, fog - thick, too. On the drive to the terminal, we had to creep along as we could often see only 50 feet. It didn't clear up for hours and delayed a bunch of flights, mine included. So I sat at Sather from 8:30 until we finally loaded up and took off at 4:30 in the afternoon.

The flight to Kuwait was typical for a C-130: crammed like sardines onto the most uncomfortable nylon-net bench seats you can imagine. There's no padding and you have to wear your body armor and hold your bags on your lap. And you have to wear earplugs because there's no sound deadening either. My butt was numb and my legs didn't want to work by the time we finally landed.

Ali Al Salem has had some changes since I was last there a few months ago. Evidently a new commanding officer has come in and turned the place into a cross between a passenger terminal and boot camp. Once we got off the bus, we were lined up in rows, all of us, from the most junior private to most senior Colonel, with some senior State Department civilians thrown in, while a young private barked orders at us. Then we were marched over to our various check-in desks. Then down to turn in our body armor. Last time I did this, I walked in, filled out the form per the directions, turned in my armor, and was on my way in five minutes. This time, I had to wait until there was a full crowd, then a sergeant bellowed us block-by-block through the form. "BLOCK 14. WRITE YOUR LAST NAME AND THEN FIRST NAME. BLOCK 15. WRITE TODAY'S DATE. IT'S ONE SIX DASH ZERO ONE DASH TWO ZERO ONE ZERO. DO NOT WRITE IT ANY OTHER WAY. HOOAH?" In another tent, a master sergeant was doing the same thing with a batch of soldiers going on R&R. Sometimes you just gotta roll your eyes and go with the flow.

I hooked up with the Corps of Engineers detachment and they got me over to the Kuwait airport. Then it was onto the plane and off we went. The flight home is about 13 hours. I dunno about you, but I cannot stay in one position, or one seat, for that long, so I was up and moving around a bit. Still I managed to get some sleep, so I was ready to go by the time we landed at Dulles. Which is where the grumpiest scanner teams in the world work. I mean, they were crabby. I run into crabby people every time I go through Dulles - at the ticket counter, security screening, immigration, all over. What is it about that place? Other airports manage to have friendly, or at least neutrally efficient, people working there, but Dulles sets its workers on edge.

Our departure from Dulles was delayed due to weather, but not enough to make me miss my next flight. I wound up sitting next to a very interesting gent from South Africa and we had a great time talking about all sorts of things. Then it was on to Asheville and back to Janis. Home again!

We've been pretty busy doing a lot of nothing. I've run a few errands, walked the dogs, checked off some things on the honey-do list, played with the dogs, visited with some friends, walked the dogs again, and taken the truck to the shop. Lots of little things that are all about being home. My body clock is all messed up, of course. I've been waking up between 2:30 to 4 a.m., regardless of what time I go to bed, and I poop out about 8 pm if not earlier.

But that's fine. I'm home. What a great place to be!

Friday, January 15, 2010

R&R Time

These past several days have been a whirlwind. I'm heading out on R&R in the morning, so I've been busting my butt trying to get everything taken care of before I go. When I scheduled this break, I thought that I'd have a bunch of contracts that would be out for bids, so it would be a quiet time. Of course, that didn't happen: I have one that's almost out, three others that are in preparation, and a couple of others that need some major policy decisions before they can move any further. But that's okay: I have little to do with the contract preparation at this stage, and the policy decisions can be done without me, so I'm getting on that plane tomorrow.

So it's been a busy few days. Had to get as much done with all these projects as possible and tee up some decisions for the bosses while giving them as much information as possible. And the lady that's covering these projects for the next couple of weeks had to be brought up to speed on what's happening. Done, and done.

Everybody has been asking me about what my plans are for when I'm home. Very little, actually. Late January is not exactly prime vacation time in the mountains of North Carolina. But I don't need a lot of exciting diversions. I just want to spend some time at home with Janis and the dogs. Lay on the couch with a beer and watch the Chargers kick some butt. Have dinner with friends - at a restaurant, our house, or their house, doesn't matter. Spend a little bit of time in the studio. Go see Avatar. That's pretty much it. I don't need excitement, I need family and friends and dogs.

And now it's off to bed. Got a very early morning tomorrow - have to go brief the boss on my proposed realignment of my programs, then climb in the van and head to the airport. Asheville, here I come!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Road Trip: Talil

I just took a road trip down south. I visited a command down in Talil to discuss one of my projects. Talil is a former Iraqi Army air base that's been taken over by US forces for the duration. It's about a 5-hour trip by road, which is how I went.

The trip started on Sunday. We left in the morning and headed south. This is a typical farm that's close to the base.

We stopped for lunch at Scania, which is a small base that's really a convoy truck stop, then pushed on again. About an hour later, one of the vehicles in our convoy (not mine) had a bit of trouble. Specifically, its transmission literally exploded, blowing a huge hole in the side of the case, and debris knocked one of the tires off its rim. We tried to tow it, but the transmission was seized up solid, so we had to wait for a very long time for KBR to come out with a wrecker and a security team to haul us off. Fortunately, we were out in the middle of nowhere. An Iraqi police truck pulled up once, and a Bedouin came by with about 20 of his camels. All our security guys got their pictures taken with the camel, but since I was the "high value client", they wouldn't let me out of the truck! We finally got into Talil many many hours after we should have. After being in body armor and helmet all day, I was a tired little puppy.

The Iraqis built their airbase adjacent to the ancient city of Ur. This city flourished about 4000 years ago. At one time it was the largest city in the world with about 60,000 people. The prophet Abraham was reportedly born here, the patriarch of both Islam and Judaism. What was Ur is now a large dirt hill. Years ago, the Iraqis restored the famous Ziggurat, and there have been many archaeological digs at the site. We turned the site back to the Iraqis last spring, so technically it is beyond the wire for us and no longer readily accessible. I was disappointed because I really would have liked to visit it. At least I got to see the Ziggurat from a distance.

We were supposed to leave early this morning, but were delayed and wound up leaving right after noon. The southern part of Iraq is flat and desert. It's pale dust as far as you can see. About the only people who live here are Bedouin. Here's a typical Bedouin tent.

And yes, the Bedouin still use camels. We came across this huge herd ambling along the way.

The trip back was uneventful: no breakdowns, no problems, just a nice fast run. Got back to the base in time to get some work done and play catch-up. Tomorrow, I have to participate in a briefing to our general. I'm not looking forward to it since one of his high mucky-mucks keeps changing my slides so the information is incorrect. So tomorrow I'll probably have to put that individual on report. Maybe next time she'll leave my damn slides alone!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Groundhog Day, Revisited

Ever since I returned from my jaunt up north, it's been the normal routine here. Nuthin' much to report. I get up at 0615, shower, have something for breakfast, and get into the office about 0730. Make myself a cuppa coffee and open up my email. Then I try to remember what the heck I was planning on doing today, go through my calendar and notebook and yesterday's to-do list, and then scribble one for today. And off I go. About lunchtime, I often go for a jog or hit the gym. Back in the office in the afternoon I'm buried in this or that project, answering pop-up queries and stupid questions from On High ("On High" in this case being one particular organization that has no value added that I can see, but interjects itself into things it has no business being involved in ... it shall remain nameless, at least for now ...). I'll knock off work around 6:30 or 7 and go grab some chow in the DFAC. Back in my room, I'll do something exciting, like laundry. About 9, I'll try to Skype with Janis. The internet service in my room has been marginally better this past week and we can actually connect most nights. Lights out about 10:30. Alarm goes off at 0615. Repeat.

This afternoon we had our routine broken up. We were rousted out of our offices because there was a "suspicious package" right outside and the EOD guys were on their way. The package, of course, turned out to be a big nothing, but it required a couple of hours to determine that. I took advantage of the break to make a quick run to the mini-BX next to the DFAC. This mini-BX is, literally, a trailer ... the kind you see behind every 18-wheeler in the country. It's got steps and a door at each end and wall racks of geedunk (Navy slang for junk food). It's about as well-equipped as a tiny little mini-mart, only without gas pumps.

As I was heading back to the office, I spotted an unusual Stryker. Most Strykers are armored vehicles that carry a bunch of troops inside. Instead of troops, this one has a big cannon installed. I stopped and talked to the young private who was standing guard while his buddies were in the DFAC. Turned out that this version carries the 105mm gun from the early M1 Abrams tanks. They left off the heavy armor from the turret, but all the good shooting stuff is there. So you've got a lotta firepower in a much lighter and more maneuverable vehicle. Abrams aren't very good in cities, but Strykers do pretty well, so this is a great combination. Wish I'd been carrying my camera.

I've got another R&R coming up in another week. I'm ready for it. I picked this time because I thought it would be fairly quiet while all my projects were out for bids from contractors. Well, that's not quite the way it worked out ... hey, this is Iraq, NOTHING works out the way you think it will. Still, it's not a bad time, and I am NOT going six months without seeing my wife and friends and dogs again. I'm a bit worried about the weather, though. We have a lot of people who've been going out or coming back lately, and many of them have horror stories of cancelled flights, missed connections, $140 cab rides, and spending a day in an airport. Ouch! Let's hope there are two windows of opportunity for me to make the hops there and back without interruption.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year

A happy new year to one and all. We had a fairly quiet one here. Our command got together for a party. There was plenty of food, karaoke (not for me!), and games. I got wiped out in blackjack as soon as I got brave. Played some Wii and proved to one and all how uncoordinated I am. Some built a bonfire outside and we roasted marshmallows - first time I've done that in many years. There were some fighter jets that made periodic low-level noisy passes over the base, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And we got to see a partial lunar eclipse from around 10 pm to around 11. A partial eclipse of a blue moon - how cool is that?

I got to sleep in today. Actually, I woke up at my usual time and then remembered that I didn't have to get up. So I didn't. Have been pretty much a slug all morning.

So goodbye, 2009. Goodbye to a pretty crummy decade in general. Let's hope 2010 and the teens are better.

2010 and the teens ... sounds like a pop band, doesn't it?