Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorial Day Weekend

Janis and I finished up our stay in Mt. Dora in style. We went back to the Goblin Market Restaurant for another fabulous dinner. We had lobster quesadillas with fruit chutney and tempura stuffed artichoke hearts for appetizers. Janis had the cedar plank salmon encrusted with pistachios and blue cheese and a roasted pablano creme sauce. I had Filet Napolean - two 4 oz filets with portobello mushrooms and mashed potatoes, all washed down with a wonderful Columbia Crest merlot. Sound pretty perfect? You had to be there. It was!

We left a bit earlier than planned on Thursday morning. We were going to stop in Savannah again, but we hit town early, about 2 pm, and decided to push on through. That decision proved to be very hard on Indy. She got very stressed out after being in the car over six hours, and since she has Addison's, which upsets her body chemistry, she suffered. We stopped several times and she had to barf and had the squirts each time. Then she settled down and went to sleep. We arrived home about 8:30 pm. The next day, Indy was back to normal, happily taking me and her sister Soozee on our twice-daily walk. Vacations are great, but it's also great to be back in your own home, isn't it?

Now it's the Memorial Day weekend. I observed it a few days ago, on the 25th. That's the anniversary of the date that two of my friends were killed in Fallujah by a roadside bomb. I had never had any friends lose their lives during my career in the Navy, so Memorial Day was a meaningful but not personal event. Now it's personal, and for me it will always be on May 25th.

So this weekend is a quiet one. I've been working on a major cleaning/polishing of my truck and doing some household projects. Right now, I'm watching the Indianapolis 500. Soozee is sound asleep on her back right next to me, legs splayed, and I can reach down and rub her belly during commercials. Indy is yipping in her sleep back in the bedroom. Life is pretty awesome.

Somebody from Japan has left several comments to blog postings, but they've all been in kanji and I can't read them. If they're in English, I'll be happy to post 'em.

Happy Memorial Day to you all!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Vacations are wonderful things. We haven't really had one in many years ... had a few "staycations", trips, and some downtime here and there, but as for packing up and going somewhere just for fun, no. So we're on vacation right now. We rented a car, drove down to Orlando, and have been goofing off down here for most of a week. Now we're wrapping up and getting ready to head back home, refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to get to work.

We decided to rent a car because our main one, the Land Rover, is now 10 years old and has over 150,000 miles on it. Although it still looks and runs great, and would probably have made the trip with no problem, it's getting to the point where we don't want to be far from home if something goes wrong. So we rented a Chevy Malibu from Avis. And to tell the truth, I've been very impressed: Chevrolet has come a long, long way in just a few years. It's nothing like the antique barges that GM used to put out, much more like a Honda or Toyota in ride, handling, and quality. And there are lots of nice little touches that I didn't notice until after living with it a while, like the soft lighting around the interior so you don't have to go groping around for the door handles or loose items. Plus, we got well over 30 mpg running at 75-80. All in all, GM is finally making a decent car again. Good on 'em!

We drove from Asheville to Savannah, Georgia, the first day, then on to our rental house in Mt. Dora (about 20 miles north of Orlando) the second. Yes, we could've done it all in one day, but why? Marathon drives are no fun. We stopped a few times along the way to stretch and let the dogs run. Janis needed her surf fix, so we stopped in Flagler Beach, where we could take Soozee and Indy out on the sand. This was the first time they'd ever seen the beach and they didn't know what to think ... it was kinda cool and fun for them, but scary, too. Eventually the "scary" overtook the "fun", so we didn't stay too long. Then that stinker Indy rolled around in a patch of grass and picked up seemingly every burr in a five-mile radius. I'm not kidding, she was covered. Took me ten minutes of combing to get 'em out.

We found our house in Mt. Dora through Vacation Rentals By Owner. It's on five acres just outside of town. Very quiet area with loads of live oaks. As it turned out, our house is really a mobile home with some very inexpert additions. (I'll just say that my neighbor at home, Darryl, who is a construction contractor, would never approve). Still, this place is comfortable enough, quiet, and is a great place to run the dogs. We can leave them at home without worrying whether they'll be nervous wrecks when we get back (see previous posting on our neurotic dogs).

So what have we done here? Well, we spent one afternoon exploring Mt. Dora. This is a nice little boutique town filled with nice little boutiques. Our great find of the day was the Goblin Market Restaurant. We had a fabulous late lunch there, and I mean fabulous. It alone would be worth the drive up from Orlando. I had something called a Grilled Chicken Fontina. It's a grilled chicken sandwich, but that's like saying a Ferrari is just a car. It was perfection on a plate. Janis had their special of the day, which was salmon wrapped in a crepe on a bed of tossed salad, along with a glass of a perfect pinot noir. And the prices were very reasonable. We're going back. If you're ever in central Florida, you should, too.

The next day, we went over to Daytona. With me being a gearhead, Daytona is a must-see. We took the tour and bought the requisite T-shirts. The highlight for me, though, was the ride-along. I suited up and rode three laps in an honest-to-God race car (modified to take a passenger) with a maniac for a driver. There are only three words to describe the experience:


They advertise a 165-mph speed and I believe every frickin' mile an hour of it. We slammed into the turns and rode up next to the wall, bouncing and jerking, pulling over 2 G's sideways, engine screaming, and me hooting as loud as I could with a grin that stuck out both sides of the car. I tell ya what, you get a whole new perspective on both the track and the drivers. Those corners are a lot tighter at 165 mph than they appear from the grandstands or on TV!

Once that was over, and I was completely drained of adrenaline, we went over to the Chart House for dinner. This restaurant chain is one of our favorites - the day we were married, for example, we celebrated with dinner at the one in Annapolis. The one in Daytona is right on the water and was, as usual, outstanding.

So what else did we do here? Well, what does anybody do when on vacation in Orlando? We went to Disneyworld! Epcot, specifically: two days wandering around that 300-acre theme park. We had a good time. While Disney is a dreamworld, "sanitized for your protection", there are still a lot of things that are genuine and enjoyable. The movie in the Chinese pavilion, for example, is a 360-degree theater, beautifully done, showing stunning landscapes, teeming cities, and a bit of (sanitized) history. It included spectacular shots of Tiananmen Square (I automatically remembered the massacre of 1989) and a section on how their multiple and diverse minorities are happily integrated into the Chinese nation (I don't think the Nepalese would agree with that description, however). These two examples point to why I don't really care for theme parks or Carnival cruises or any other fantasy experiences: eliminating the "unpleasant" or not-politically-correct half of the world eliminates the depth, richness, messiness, and vibrancy of real life. So Disneyland was fun, but in a bit of a cotton-candy way.

Still, there were some very real experiences. One is food: there's plenty of outstanding eating to be done. We munched on some excellent nachos at the Mexican pavilion and had a wonderful lunch in the German biergarten. The neat thing there is that they follow the German custom of seating multiple groups together. We wound up paired with a young couple from Lubbock, Texas, who were there on a honeymoon, and had a great time talking with them. The food, by the way, was excellent.

In the Japanese area, there were some taiko drummers. Taiko drumming is a Japanese art form, and is one of the things I most enjoyed about our tour in Japan. They had a trio from Tokyo performing, and they were good.

Two days in Disneyworld was enough, though. We could have gone back today to do Magic Kingdom or one of the other parks, but don't really want to deal with the crowds, heat, or cotton-candy nature of a theme park. So we'll be low-key this afternoon. We'll pack this evening and start the return trip tomorrow morning. We've had a great time on our first vacation in years, but now we just want to get back to our own little house.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Neurotic Dogs

We have two neurotic dogs. I mean, really, they take the cake. You know the term, "separation anxiety"? That's them, two furry little anxieties walking around.

Indy is not too bad. She has always had a rather level head on her tiny shoulders, along with an analytical mind. Way back when they were pups, we got them some rubber balls. Soozee immediately pounced on hers. Indy, though, sat back and watched for a bit. It was like she was thinking, "What's this thing? What do you do with it? Okay, so you throw it and I bring it back? Is this supposed to be fun?" Then she got the idea, jumped in, and has been giving her ball hell ever since. Indy doesn't get too excited about most noises or new situations, but there are a few things that peg her stressometer.

One of them is thunder. Even if it's way off in the distance, so far that I can't hear it. I'll be doing something and all of a sudden here's this 16-pound wart attached to my leg, panting and drooling. If it's at night, it's worse: I'll wake up to find her standing on my chest, wide-eyed, panting, and spooked. No amount of petting will calm her down. She won't sleep and she'll make damn sure I don't sleep, either. But I can't get mad at her, poor thing. We all have our phobias, and one of hers is thunder.

Where Indy is normally a level-headed dog, Soozee is on a constant emotional roller coaster. Thunder doesn't bother her in the slightest. Instead, she gets completely freaked when Janis starts to do her hair and put makeup on. That means J's going somewhere, and Soozee may or may not be going along. So she gets worried, and I mean worried. Her little head is snapping around as she tries to figure the situation out. Eventually, she'll go out in the garage and sit on the top step. If we go anywhere, we have to go down those steps, and Soozee will be right there to remind us "take me! take me!".

Another of her phobias is the vacuum cleaner. To her, it's a noisy monster that invades her house. She'll go and hide from it. Where? The top step in the garage, of course.

A third phobia shows up whenever we get the suitcases out. She knows that means somebody's going somewhere (she figured that out long before I went to Baghdad) and that she probably will not be going along. Suitcases are Bad News. She'll sit in the middle of the living room with the saddest expression on her face and try to lay a heavy guilt trip on us. She's very good at it, too. Must've been a Catholic mother in a previous life.

But say the magic words, "Do you want to go for a ride?" and both dogs are the most joyful creatures in all God's creation. Whooopeee!! A ride!! There is much jumping about and licking of faces. They don't just wag their tails, they wag their whole bodies. Then it's out to the car and into their car seat. (Yes, we have special car seats for the dogs - it gets them up high enough to see out the windows). A five-minute trip to the dump and post office is a magic event ... as is a 20-minute trip to the studio, or an hour-long collection of errands. They're all the same to Soozee and Indy. They look out the window, they snooze, they look out the window some more. They're the best little travelers ever. Which is a good thing, because over the past few days, they've spent some serious hours in the car. They don't care where we go as long as they can go, too.

I sure did miss that when I was in Iraq. So I'm really enjoying it all now.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Boycott BP

I'm boycotting BP. I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt right after the initial explosion, but the more I learned about their irresponsible actions, the more pissed off I got. BP won't notice my little boycott - I almost never buy their gas anyway - but I have to do my tiny part to encourage others to do the same. The only way to get their attention is to hit 'em in the wallet. Here's a listing of why I'm angry:
- In 2000, BP was fined $500,000 for failing to disclose that one of their contractors had been dumping hazardous waste down oil well shafts on the North Slope.
- In March, 2005, the Texas City oil refinery exploded, killing 15 and injuring 180. BP was fined twice for multiple violations related to that incident, once for $50M and then last year for $87M. The one last year resulted from 270 safety violations that had been identified in 2005 and still not fixed, plus 430 new ones.
- Lack of maintenance led to spillage of 5000 barrels of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 2006. In 2007, there was a spillage of 2000 gallons of a methanol/oil mixture at another of their Prudhoe Bay fields.
- The Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20th was a direct result of BP pushing their contractors to work faster and skimp on safety procedures. 60 Minutes had a double-length segment last night that clearly showed how BP over-rode Transocean's established procedures.
- Even worse, there is another BP oil platform in the Gulf that is evidently a disaster waiting to happen. 60 Minutes had a brief bit about it, saying it had no accurate or approved drawings, that operations cannot be safely accomplished without the drawings, and that it will soon be pumping huge amounts of oil from multiple wells. An engineer warned that a disaster there was not only likely, but would make the Deepwater Horizon look like a minor bubble.
- BP has been blaming everybody except themselves. Bullshit. It's BP's well, it's BP's fault, and it's BP's responsibility.
- The CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, is on record minimizing the environmental impact of the blowout, saying that the Gulf is a big body of water and the amount of oil covers only a very small part. This is disingenuous. Further, it appears that much, if not most, of the oil is remaining below the surface of the Gulf. Last night there was a report that there was a subsurface plume of oil that was 10 miles wide and 7 miles long.

I don't do boycotts very often. I've been boycotting Citgo for years, since Citgo is owned by the government of Venezuela, meaning it's propping up Hugo Chavez. But that's about it. This time, it's really serious. BP's arrogance and greed are generating an environmental disaster of epic proportions, with the possibility - no, the probability - of an even worse one at any time.

Boycott BP!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Into the Groove At Home

It's been a week and a half since my arrival at home now. I've had a busy time doing nothing much, and there's a lot to be said for doing nothing much. I've chipped away at the honey-do list, and chipped away at my own to-do list, but if something couldn't get done that day (or even that week), well, so be it. There are other things to do. Sleep in late, for one. Take the dogs for walks ... lots of walks. Visit with friends. Play "throw the ball" with the dogs. Make a run to the post office and grocery store. Visit with more friends. That's about it.

There are some things that I'm avoiding as much as possible. The news, for one. I've watched one evening news show since coming home and have only lightly skimmed the news sites on the net. In a few weeks, I'll probably start following current events again, but for now, there are many things far more important than the news from Iraq. Things like the killer grilled-cheese sandwiches that J made today for lunch (New York sharp cheddar cheese with bacon bits on sourdough grilled in a panini-maker ... they were to die for).

If the TV has to be on, then there are better things to watch than the news. Saturday Night Live with Betty White as the host, for example. Or coverage of some off-the-wall car race. Escapist, yes. Fun, yes. Serious, no. Forget serious, I've had enough of that for a while.

One of my projects was to install a new receiver and speakers in my old truck. It still had the original single-CD player and crappy speakers that were installed ten years ago. I wanted something that sounded great and would let me hook up my iPod. So I ordered new equipment from Crutchfield a few weeks ago while still in Baghdad and it was waiting for me when I arrived. Last week I installed it and it sounds so much better. Very clear and sharp. I needed a bit of time to learn how to use it ... for example, it took me two days to figure out how to get the clock to display. Today, I finished the installation of an iPod interface in our Land Rover, so I'll have tunes no matter which car I'm in. Very cool!

Two days ago, I made the discovery that working out in the gym and jogging every two or three days does not prepare you in the slightest for mowing the lawn. At least not our lawn, which is a full acre and very steep. As is normal, I got into the rhythm with the mower and didn't want to stop until it was all over. By then, I'd wrenched my back somehow and I'm still walking like a robot on Motrin. Ugh!

I have not yet gone back to work in the studio. That'll come in a couple of weeks. Right now, I feel as if I have plenty of time, and I would much rather kick back for now and just enjoy the things I do have: a wonderful wife, the two sweetest dogs in the world, a great house, and all the little joys of day-to-day living.

It is so good to be home!

Monday, May 03, 2010

End of the Adventure

The adventure is over. I'm back at home again, readjusting to life in the real world. Life is definitely good.

My stay in Kuwait was pretty quiet. It felt really great to turn in my body armor for the last time. That's forty pounds of gear that I will NOT miss. I chilled most of the day Wednesday: read a book, took a nap (when was the last time I took a nap??), hit the gym, and made sure I had everything ready to go that evening. Then we headed out to the airport. The place was packed, and so was our flight. I wanted to turn in some of my miles for a business class upgrade, but United was having none of that - all seats were taken. We loaded up and left right on time.

Sometimes I can sleep okay on planes, other times not. This was one of the "nots". Even with a bulkhead to lean against, I just could not get into la-la land. I'd been wondering about our route, what with the volcano in Iceland still spewing ash, but we followed our normal path up over eastern Europe, north of the UK, and just south of Iceland. I talked with one of the stewards who said that they had to move their flight path well to the south the previous week: over the Mediterranean and Spain, but that now the ash was blowing north into the Arctic, so the airlines could resume their normal routes.

We landed early Thursday morning at Dulles. Processing through immigration was quick and efficient, if impersonal. Dulles must be a miserable place to work, though, because not one of the workers I've encountered on several trips through there over the past year and a half has been remotely cheerful or friendly. Passengers, to them, are just a pain in the ass who must be tolerated and processed as fast as possible. Once through customs, I was met by my "limo" driver, PJ, and taken up to Winchester. Damn, it was good to be back in the US of A again! It was a beautiful morning: cool, clear, with green grass and blue skies, and very little traffic going our way. PJ was a lot of fun to talk with and we jabbered about all kinds of stuff the whole way. We arrived at the hotel in Winchester early, before a room was ready, so I parked my bags behind the counter and headed over to IHOP for breakfast. Oh my gosh, the pancakes, eggs, and sausage were to die for ... at least after DFAC pancakes, eggs, and sausage. (The coffee, no: it was more like colored water). I was a happy man.

The rest of the day was for readjustment. I was pretty worn out after the flight, so I had a nice afternoon doze, went for a jog, and hit a Mexican restaurant (run by real Mexicans) for dinner. Excellent! I hit the rack early, and was up and wide awake by 4 in the morning ... which was 11 by my body clock, so I couldn't decide whether I was up too early or had slept in!

The bus came and picked us up at the hotel a bit after 7. There were quite a few of us returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, and even some from Haiti. (Yes, the Corps of Engineers is very active in Haiti rebuilding). We had a full classroom for the outprocessing, but they have it down to a fine art now. We were poked and prodded, had blood drawn, and questioned about whether we had any suicidal or homicidal thoughts ("not now, but if I miss my flight this afternoon, I certainly will have some"). I turned in my duffel bag full of gear that they gave me a year ago and that stayed in the bag the whole time. Finally everything was done and we were loaded back onto the bus and returned to the hotels. My second "limo" driver, Pat, showed up and off we went to Dulles. Pat's an interesting lady and we had a wonderful time talking all the way down to the airport.

Dulles on a Friday afternoon was pretty much what you'd expect: a madhouse. Remember what I said about how friendly their workers are? You can double it on a Friday afternoon. And you can double the time you think you'll spend in there, since it's far more crowded than you think it is. I made it to my gate with five minutes to spare. And, of course, my flight was packed and they were looking for volunteers to bump. Not this guy, not today!! The flight to Atlanta went off on schedule. At 5:15 we flew directly over Asheville, and I could see my studio and all the old familiar places. I wanted to just put on a parachute and jump out right there - hey, save some time, right? Atlanta was just as crowded and nuts as Dulles. Again, I made it to my gate with five minutes to spare, and off we went, right back in the direction I'd just come from.

As soon as I got off the plane in Asheville, I headed out to the parking lot. Janis had brought the dogs. I could see them out in the parking lot as I approached and they knew something was up. They've learned that when they go to the airport, they're either picking Daddy up or dropping him off, and if he's not with them right then, that means they're picking him up. So their heads were up, they were looking around, and they were excited. I whistled at them and here they came, two little hairy rockets at full speed, followed closely by Janis. You couldn't ask for a better homecoming.

So my Iraq adventure is over. I'm getting readjusted to life at home now, and thinking about what comes next. I'll write up some final thoughts on Iraq in another post, but for now, I'm just going to chill. And enjoy being home.