Saturday, August 30, 2008

Home Again

It's good to be HOME again.  The drive from Washington to Mars Hill last night went well.  There was a bit of a backup leaving Washington, but it really wasn't too bad, and it cleared up around Manassas.  After that it was 70-75 the whole way.  I left at 3:30 and arrived home at 11:30.

The dogs were funny.  They were in a kinda "Is it really Daddy?" mode, excited and unbelieving at the same time.  Soozee adjusted pretty quickly and brought me the Dreaded Puppet (her favorite toy) almost as soon as I sat down.  Daddy's home, it's playtime!  Indy, though, was really bent out of shape.  I've read that if their humans go away for any period of time, dogs think they're dead.  Evidently that happened with Indy, only here I was again, and she didn't know what to make of it.  Kinda like, "it's ALIIIVVE!  BWAAA-hahahahaaaa!"  She kept her distance.  Today, though, things are approaching normal.  I took 'em for a walk this morning and she seems to have adjusted to me being back.

Janis is happy, too.  She's a clean freak, and with my absence for 2 1/2 weeks, she's got this house spotless.  Actually, she's kinda moving me out, too, which is an odd feeling.  Just little things - she took my cappuccino machine off the counter, for instance, since she doesn't use it, and moved in something she does use.  And she took over both sinks in the bathroom.  

So now I'm home and it looks like an explosion in a clothing factory.  I've got stuff everywhere.  Clothes, books, camera, computer stuff, laundry, suitcases, you name it.  I'm PigPen to her Lucy.

So now to go take care of some things around here, do some relaxing, and get ready to get on the airplane.  Lots to do and never enough time to do it in!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Training Wrap-Up

Tomorrow will be my last day of training here in the DC area.  We'll finish up around 5 pm and then I'll hit the road back to Asheville.  Yes, that's right: 5 pm traffic on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, heading out of Washington.  It will NOT be pretty.  

I've been very impressed with the training courses, instructors, and fellow students over the past two weeks.  The courses have been well designed and the instructors (particularly this week) have been top-notch.  For the past two days, we've been learning about emergency medical treatment.  Not a pleasant topic, but very necessary in a country like Iraq.  And as I've stated in a previous post, my fellow students are an impressive bunch.  They all have exceptional backgrounds: Army Special Forces, police detective, senior attache in other Middle Eastern countries, career Foreign Service, and many more that are highly qualified for the jobs they're going to.  Tomorrow our group will scatter and we'll see each other next in Baghdad.

This week I got to see some more old friends.  I visited John and Alexis, whom I've known for maybe 25 years, ever since John and I were junior officers in the same office at Fort Meade.  Last night I went out to see Konrad, Mary Beth, and their sons Kurt and Eric, who were my neighbors the next time I was stationed at Fort Meade in the early 90's.  Tonight I had dinner with Scott, an old Navy buddy from way back.  It was great to see all of them.  I've been blessed to have found good friends throughout my life, and one of the best things in the world is to spend time with them.  I'm pretty sure I'll add a few more over the next twelve months.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Sandbox

I just added a new link to my favorite blog list.  "The Sandbox" is an ongoing collection of writings, poems, photos, stories, rants, and BS from military members in Iraq and Afghanistan.  If you want to know what's really going on over there, take a look.  There's a lot of powerful stuff there, some funny stuff, and stuff that'll make you cry.

Crash and Bang Part Deux

Today our training course took "crash and bang" literally.  We started with some warm-up exercises of backing the car around the racetrack at insane speeds and doing Y-turns periodically.  Then we went into scenario-playing where we put the techniques learned yesterday to actual use.  We practiced identifying threatening situations and getting out of them.  Sometimes we were drivers, sometimes participants, sometimes just observers, all of which reinforced the main message.  Basically, it's (a) maintain control of yourself and your vehicle and (b) get as much distance between you and the bad guys as possible, as quickly as possible, as safely as possible.  Crazy driving is frowned on, since if you wreck your car while trying to get away, you do yourself no favors.

We also practiced how to ram your car through a roadblock, both forward and backward.  We beat that poor Honda Accord to pieces.  After ten students had hit it twice each, it looked like a beer can in a bar's parking lot.  Our rammers, by contrast, were still running just fine.  They looked like hell, but all the important pieces were still in place.  I think I'm ready for the Demolition Derby.  Or the DC Beltway.  

At the end of the day, we got a demonstration of several different types of explosives.  Very impressive ... except for the part where they accidently set the grass on fire, which grew into an alarming little brush fire before getting put out.  Ooops.  For a finale, they had put a half pound of high explosives into the dash of an old Dodge Intrepid.  That little bit of HE just blew the crap out of the Dodge: roof blown off, doors blown out, glass gone, dash disintegrated.  Most impressive.

There was an article on CNN this morning about an attack on a US official in Peshawar, Pakistan.  Some gunmen in a Land Rover blocked the official's car and started shooting, and the driver threw it in reverse and got the hell out of there.  That's exactly the kind of thing we've been getting training for over the last two days.

Tomorrow, we'll be on the shooting range, then back to town for classroom studies.  I'm going to go see some friends tomorrow night.  And I'm looking forward to getting a decent internet connection again.  Our hotel advertises "high speed wi-fi", but their definition of "high speed" is somewhat questionable ... a good dial-up connection would be faster ....

Monday, August 25, 2008

Crash and Bang

Today was the first day of our "crash and bang" class.  We spent it at a racetrack learning advanced car control skills, and you would not believe what a Crown Vic can do.  We practiced braking until the tires and brake pads literally smoked.  We threw the cars around slaloms.  We drove backwards at ridiculous speeds.  We slid 'em, spun 'em, wound 'em up and slammed 'em down.  

In other words, it's not your high school Driver's Ed.

The purpose of all this is to give us some advanced car control skills in case something bad happens to us Out There. It's rare, but people have used this training in real life, so it's a good thing.  I'm all for it.  As a certified gear head, stuff like this is better than an E ticket at Disneyland.  Tomorrow we'll take the specific tricks we learned today and use 'em in different "terrorist attack" scenarios.  Should be a blast.

Last night, I revised my studio web site.  I took out the paintings that made fun of George Bush.  It's not cool to post images that make your boss look bad, particularly when the site is likely to be viewed by the foreign nationals we're working with.  So favorites like the Pachydermian Portrait of King George II are now in web site limbo, at least for the next year.  The remaining satirical paintings are now collected in the "Twisted Tales" section.  And no, I don't think "Twisted Tales" is the most clever name for the series, but it was the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment, so if you have a better suggestion, I'm all ears.  

While I was at it, I took out the "Forest Nymph" section as well.  I couldn't figure out how to explain to the Iraqis that I, a married man, was posting a collection of photographs that included nude women.  This series will probably magically reappear on my web site as soon as this tour is over.

And now to bed.  Driving like a maniac is hard work, and this old boy needs his beauty sleep.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Evening Thoughts

I'm sitting here in my hotel room on Sunday night.  My class finished up on Friday afternoon.  I thought it was very well done, with some exceptionally good sections and a few that we could have done without.  All in all, I came away with a good feeling for my new job.

After class, I headed out to Annapolis to stay with some old friends.  I've known Tim for about 17 years now.  Doesn't seem like that long, but I just counted up the years on my fingers and it's true.  And even though Tim is extremely politically conservative, he's still a great guy and we get along great.  He and his beautiful wife Caprice opened up their home to me.  We hung out, ate some great food, went to the Maryland Renaissance Festival, watched the Bristol NASCAR race, and had a great time.

Today, I headed over to visit some other old friends and mooch a dinner off them.  I've known John and Alexis even longer, about 24 years.  Damn, I'm old.  It's always great to play catch-up with people you've known a long time.  We played "whatever happened to ... " and "remember that time you ...".  Lots of fun.  And as with Tim and Caprice, lots of good food.  

Tomorrow I start the "crash and bang" class.  I'm looking forward to it.  More details later!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

True Colors

Two of our international rivals have been in the news lately.  China is hosting the Olympics and has been trying to put forth a positive image to the world.  Russia is acting more and more like its Soviet Union predecessor, with militant dreams of an empire.  Both deserve some comment, but in the interest of brevity, I'll just deal with one right now: China.

In hosting the Olympics, China has invited the world to come and see their country.  They want everybody to think of China as a beautiful country, friendly, successful, and a leading member of the international community.  Unfortunately, that's not the impression I've gotten.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  My impression is that the Chinese leadership (official and civilian) is made up of a bunch of cold-hearted, lying thugs who'll do anything to achieve their goals, with absolutely no respect for anybody or anything else.  Fraud and cruelty is a standard way of doing business.  Some of the things that stood out for me:
- They take girls who show gymnastic promise away from their parents as early as three years of age.  The state raises them in an incredibly strict and rigorous training camp.  Their families have no choice but to let them go and rarely, if ever, get to see them.  In the US, we have terms for that, namely "kidnapping" and "child abuse".  People go to jail for that.  For life.  In China, though, it's a state-run activity.
- Although the Olympic rules require that female gymnasts be 16 years of age during the year of the Olympics, the Chinese have no qualms about entering girls who are apparently as young as nine, ten, or eleven, and then lying about their ages.  Now, it's certainly not unheard-of for American athletes to break rules (see Marion Jones), but again, this is the state that's doing it.
- Chinese officials evidently never heard of Nilly Vanilly, the pop duo whose careers were ended when it was discovered they lip-synced their songs.  The officials decided that the real singer wasn't "cute enough" to be on TV, so they drafted a cutie to lip-sync.  Deceitful, at best.
- In an effort to make Beijing look pretty, Chinese officials bulldozed the houses of thousands of people and replaced them with flowerbeds.  Not only deceitful, but incredibly destructive.
- Turns out that all those flowerbeds require a lot of water.  The water was diverted away from rice paddies and other farmland in the adjacent province, which is already suffering a terrible drought.  All these paddies and fields are now dried-up and barren, the farmers are in terrible shape, and the food they produce has to come from other stocks.  Deceitful, destructive, and ecologically devastating.
- Chinese officials never really came close to reducing air pollution despite all their promises and rhetoric.  

None of this should really come as much of a surprise.  China has a long history of heavy-handed official duplicity and a disregard for international rules of conduct.  It's evident in almost everything they do.  Rather than letting their currency float on the international markets, they keep their currency at an artificially low level, for example, which boosts their exports and restricts their imports.  They don't respect copyright laws, so pirated CD's, DVD's, books, and artworks are readily available ... more money for the Chinese, none for the people who actually created the works.  

If China was a person, it'd be that lowlife neighbor who made a lot of money in ways you don't want to know about, sticks garish decorations all over the lawn, lets his dogs loose to poop on your doorstep, and threatens you with physical harm when you let him know he's being an asshole.  

Years ago, during the Tiananmen Square uprising, a single man armed only with a shopping bag stood in front of a row of tanks and stopped them.  Today, the tanks are still rolling, but in a very different way.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Now for some Training ...

My training courses started today.  This week, we'll get a cram course in the history, language, culture, and politics of Iraq in five easy days.  Next week will be some exciting hands-on stuff, but I'll write about that when I get to it.

The first thing that impressed me today was the quality of the people going through the course.  Everybody going to Iraq has to take it, or else you don't get on the plane.  There are about 20 people in this week's course, and I'm one of the very few who hasn't been there yet.  One guy has spent five years there.  Quite a few have been there multiple times.  Several finished up tours just within the past few weeks.  Most everybody has been working in their particular area of expertise for ten, fifteen, twenty years or more.  These people know their stuff.  

And then there's me.  A retired Navy guy, never been to Iraq, puttering away as an unemployed artist the past five years, being sent off to manage reconstruction projects.  Have I ever managed a reconstruction project?  Hell, no.  However, my not knowing anything about the project at hand never stopped the Navy from putting me in charge of something.  If I could muddle through it then, I can muddle through it now.  

The course looks like it's going to be pretty good.  There was a lot of good info coming out today.  I was scribbling notes like mad.  The Iraq veterans were bored silly, since for the most part they've known it for years.

You, the American taxpayer, should rest assured that you've got some top-notch people working for you in Iraq.  I'm serious.  And I'm hoping I can learn something from them.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Check-In For The New Job

Well, I now have a real job.  Over the past couple of days, I've been fingerprinted, photographed, and issued not one, not two, but three identification badges (okay, one of them was a tourist badge at the Pentagon, but it's got my picture on it, so a badge is a badge).  I've filled out paper forms, filled out online forms, been given stacks of important things to read, taken an online computer security course, and have more new PIN's and login ID's than you can shake a laser pointer at.  I've checked in at the State Department, at the Pentagon, at the State Department's training center, and at a hotel.  I've been told how to do about a zillion things, of which I can remember maybe three.  In other words, I'm locked and loaded, ready to go.

Actually, I've been pretty impressed with how well my contacts have done everything that needed to be done.  They really have the routine organized well and know how to walk newbies like me through it.  When you consider that the Embassy and related activities have almost 100% turnover every 12 months and that there are several thousand billets to be filled, it's a helluva demanding job.  About as soon as a job is filled with a warm body, it's time to start advertising for a replacement, and once they're selected, they all have to be run through the same set of hoops.  

We finished up my in-processing this afternoon and I headed up to Baltimore to visit my aunt and cousin.  That meant leaving Tyson's Corner around 2:15 pm, driving around the Beltway, up I-95, and halfway around the Baltimore Beltway.  This trip reminded me of why I never want to live in this area again.  Traffic.  Backed up, creeping along, stop-and-go ... and it wasn't even the rush hour!  I found that all my old Washington driving instincts quickly returned.  I knew how to aggressively protect my place in line while watching for openings in the adjacent lanes that might let me gain a carlength or two.  No bastard's gonna cut me off!  

This evening, my aunt made crab cakes for dinner.  Friends, these are world-class crab cakes.  You won't find their equal in any five-star restaurant.  They are light, packed with crabmeat, delicately seasoned, and ohmigawd delicious.  Aunt B says she just follows the recipe.  Well, maybe so, and Rembrandt just slopped paint on canvas, too.  These crab cakes should be designated a Certified National Treasure by an act of Congress.  

So now it's late and I'm brain dead.  Getting up at five o'clock may be fine for some people, but this lazy-ass artist isn't used to that.  Not now, anyway, although that will probably change pretty quickly.  

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Adventure Begins ...

The past several days have been a bit of a blur: packed with too many things to do and not enough time to do them in.  I thought I'd get a chance to see a few friends one more time but that didn't happen.  There's really never enough time to do every thing that you want to do ... if there is, then you aren't being very imaginative!

The reality of the trip finally hit me when I started packing my bags.  Until then, it was something "in the future".  Suddenly, it was now.  Packing became very difficult.  Janis was troubled, too, and relieved her stress by cleaning the house like a madwoman.  The dogs also knew that something was up.  I don't know how, but they knew I was leaving, and tried to lay a guilt trip on me.  It worked, too.  

Yesterday, I left home for the start of my Iraq assignment.  It was really hard for me to get in the truck and go.  I think, though, that it's easier on the person who's leaving: that one has new places to go, things to do, people to see, and new experiences to keep the mind busy.  The one staying behind is left with a hole where somebody important used to be, and there really aren't any new experiences to help mask that.  So while I didn't get myself settled down until I was through Tennessee and well into southern Virginia, Janis needed most of the day.

The drive went well.  Traffic wasn't too heavy and moved at a pretty steady 70-75 mph.  I checked into the Comfort Inn at Tyson's Corner about 7 pm and found that they were having a cookout for hotel guests.  Can you believe it?  I didn't ... kept thinking it was some kinda private party and had to double-check with the front desk.  So I had fresh-cooked burger, chili, and a beer, all courtesy of the hotel.  And the hotel has broadband internet access and wi-fi.  I like this place.

Me being me, there are a few glitches.  I forgot my alarm clock and plain white t-shirts.  Went out and bought a cheap travel alarm and found out too late that it didn't include a battery.  Couldn't find a place that sold t-shirts at 9:45 pm ... at least, one that didn't have REDSKINS written all over it.  It's not cool to show up for your first day on the job with REDSKINS peeking through your plain white dress shirt.  And I got up an hour early this morning because (1) I never sleep well the first night in a new place, particularly when I have to get up at some ridiculous hour, and (2) the damn hotel alarm clock was set one hour ahead ... which of course I didn't discover until I was sitting here bleary-eyed with a cup of coffee halfway gone.  Oh, well, it gave me time to catch up on this.

So today I'll go in to town and get checked in with the State Department.  Big day.  More to come!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Quick Update

Yes, I haven't posted anything in too many days.  Everything is moving at a very fast clip right now, leaving me no time to add anything to this blog.

The reason is that last Monday, I finally got a firm date for the beginning of my adventure with the State Department.  I'll leave this coming Wednesday.  Yep, that's pretty quick.  My experience with State is that they're like a glacier: things creep along at a snail's pace for months, then suddenly everything happens at once.  So on Wednesday, I'll drive up to DC for inprocessing and two weeks of training.  I'm hoping to see a bunch of old friends while there, and certainly will stay with my aunt and cousin in Baltimore for a few nights.  When the training is over, I'll come back home for the Labor Day weekend.  Then I'll fly out on Sep 1 or 2 enroute Baghdad.

So this development kicked everything into high gear.  I've been finishing up house projects and sorting stuff to take with me or mail to myself.  I've pretty much got the new computers figured out.  One neat thing is the Macs have a videoconference capability built right in.  Didn't take even a komputer klutz like me very long to figure it out.  Now I need to get J trained on some of the things I've learned.

Speaking of Janis, her last day of working at the hospital was Thursday.  She's now officially unemployed and pretty happy about it.

Last night, we met up with our friends Marty and Eileen.  They own the Cotton Mill building where my studio is located.  We went out to dinner at the Sunny Point Cafe in west Asheville.  Great little place, wonderful food.  I ate too damn much.  Then we went to see the Terpsicorps dance production at the Diana Wortham Theater.  Terpsicorps is a contemporary dance company based in Asheville and run by Heather Maloy.  She and her dancers are really good.  Last night they did one of their standards, "Couch Potato", which is on YouTube:

So now it's back to work. I checked email, spent some time doing this, and still have too much to do!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Adventures with Macs

I'm a geek wannabe.  Doesn't sound quite right, does it?  You either are or aren't a geek.  You're born that way.  Women, in particular, can tell whether you're a geek with just a glance.  

Well, I may look like a geek, but being one requires that you have a good grasp of the arcanery involved with computers.  And I am the guy to whom my co-workers once gave a t-shirt that read "Bermuda Triangle of the ADP World".  The fact they used the term "ADP" shows that my computer-klutz roots go way, way back.  Years later, the Navy (in all its wisdom) put me in charge of a cutting-edge software technology development effort.  Yes, it's true.  One time my team and I went to our contractor's lab for a demo of the latest "sailor-proof" version of the software.  I crashed it inside of five minutes and it took them the rest of the morning to figure out what happened and get it running again.  I have more stories like that, but you get the idea.  Put me around a computer, and I'm as deadly as a three-year-old with a hammer.

What brought this discussion on is the fact that I now have in my home office not one, not two, but three computers.  First is our old Dell which we've had for about four or five years.  It's getting a little long in the tooth now and needs some TLC every now and then to keep it running.  With me about to be gone for a year, and with Microsoft doing everything in its power to get people to dump their old XP systems and buy Vista (according to all impartial reviewers, a pile of junk), it was clearly time to replace the old Dell.  So we bought an iMac for the home and a MacBook for me to take on my journeys.  

The differences between the two system's philosophies are subtle but significant.  It's like the difference between American English and the Queen's English.  Much is the same, but when you hit a difference, it's usually going to mean something big.  So far I've avoided anything really big.  One time, a new program locked up when I tried to launch it, giving me the Mac's "spinning wheel of death" and not letting me do anything with the computer.  A panicked phone call to a friend who's a long-time Mac owner resolved the situation.  

One oddity that hasn't been resolved yet is wireless access.  This MacBook, like virtually all built these days, has a wi-fi capability built in.  And I have a wi-fi network in my house.  However, my MacBook and network do not talk to each other.  My Mac talks to the wi-fi down at the studio, but not here.  And I know there is a network here because a 16-year-old girl who was dog-sitting for us was able to hop on the net with her Mac in about 2.5 microseconds.  I've been banging on this laptop for a week and haven't done it yet.  Good thing I've got this 14' ethernet cable.

Which brings up the next point.  I have an honest-to-God computer network in my house.  And it works!  That wi-fi network I mentioned above came courtesy of my Verizon DSL account.  They gave me a box that sat on top of The Old Dell and blinked (or not) at me for all these years.  When I got the Macs, I was trying to decide how to transfer all the information from The Old Dell to the new Macs.  (At the risk of incurring the wrath of a certain corporate monolith, I've dubbed them the Big Mac and the Little Mac).  A network was the easiest solution.  First, though, I had to determine if I had this thing called a "router".  So I crawled around under the desk to check out the Verizon box, and sure enough it was a router (the word "router" stamped on the side was a good clue).  After a bit of time connecting ethernet cables and stepping through instructions in my "Switching To The Mac: The Missing Manual" book, lo and behold, the three computers were actually working together.  Frickin' amazing.  Especially for me.

Another point.  The Apple Stores have a big buzz surrounding them that heralds them as The Next Great Thing.  I went into one while visiting San Diego and I was not impressed.  First, it was chaotic and a bit ostentatiously "latest thing".  Second, I wanted to see if they could tell me why my laptop wasn't working with my home wi-fi.  They couldn't.  Even after I told them that the MacBook was at home in North Carolina, they told me to "bring it in and we'll check it out".  Hello, are you listening?  Third, I found a book on switching from PC's to Macs and wanted to buy it, only I couldn't find anybody to actually ring me up.  They were too busy running around talking to each other on their bluetooth headsets to deal with an actual dweebish customer.  I went over to Barnes & Noble and found a good book there.  Score: Apple Store 0, B&N 30.

But I'm happy with the two Macs.  They work extremely well, once you adjust to their "intuitive" operating system (it's only "intuitive" if you think like Steve Jobs).  They're easier to set up and operate than The Old Dell.  And there's an elegance to their design that's really beautiful.  I'm gonna love the Macs.  Now, if I can just figure out this wi-fi thingie ...

Friday, August 01, 2008

Responses to my Newsgram

A couple of days ago, I sent out a note to a lot of our friends.  I wanted to let people know about my upcoming year in Iraq.  The responses have been supportive, surprising, and extremely moving.  I won't share the specific comments here, but will talk about the generalities.

First, every single response was supportive.  I had expected a few to say something like "you dumbshit!", but nobody did.  All were encouraging, saying in many different ways that they stood behind me.  

There were a few surprises, too.  A couple of old friends forwarded my note to other old friends that I hadn't seen nor heard from in, oh, twenty years.  So, out of the blue, came notes from these wonderful people.  It was great to re-establish contact with them again.  

And there were some very deeply thought, strongly felt notes as well.  One of them, an old Navy buddy, was greatly affected by my "Meditation on War" paintings, particularly Lament and Warrior.  His daughter's fiance was killed in combat some time ago and they still mourn his loss.  My paintings touched a very tender nerve.  Maybe "touched" isn't the right word ... from his comments,  they were more like a kick in the gut, an unexpected confrontation with an unhealed wound.  Another friend, who has never been associated with the military, is extremely stressed over my going into a dangerous situation.  Although I tried, it's difficult for me to address that sort of concern.  Iraq is dangerous, but the International Zone (aka "Green Zone") is reasonably safe, and I'm not going into a combat role.  As prior military people know, you weigh your options, assess the danger, and take the best precautions you can.  Not a big deal ... to me, anyway.  But it seems to be hard for non-military people to understand why military members (and even a few retirees like me) do what we do ... and just as hard for us to understand the concern of our non-military friends.  All we can do is try to reach across the gap.  Which this friend did so well.  I hope my response was up to the task.