Monday, September 29, 2008

Monday Updates

So I get up this morning and head over to the gym.  It's 6 a.m., which is normally a pretty quiet time in there.  Not today.  Seemed like everybody else had the same idea ... "hey, 6 am, the gym's clear ..." Nope.  The place was packed.  I wanted to hit the free weights today, which turned out to be a good thing as all the machines had people waiting in line.  But in the free weights area, there was this guy with shoulders that were 5 feet wide, biceps as big as my leg, and a mohawk, who was working the bench press.  He was making more noise than the rest of the room put together.  "UUUHHHHHH ...... OOOOOAAAAAAAHHHHHHH .... ggnnnnnUUUUUUHhhhhhhh"  And here I am, working my dinky little 15-pound weights right beside him.  A regular Mutt 'n' Jeff show.

One of my officemates left today.  He's been transferred over to Camp Victory, which is the American military base out by the airport.  Frankly, we don't know why he got transferred, but the people that control the billet said "we want him over here", even though the people that he'll actually work for don't know what to do with him.  Yes, it's the military bureaucracy that made that decision.  But we'll miss him.  Zach is hyperactive, slightly geeky, good-looking, and a bit over the top.  One of those kids to whom everything is "AAWWESOME".  He's the only one I've ever known to call an admiral "dude".  And he's a bit of a chick magnet, but naive enough to completely miss it until we point it out to him.  

Anyway, Zach had to take ground transportation out to Camp Victory.  This isn't like a quick trip to Safeway: it's ten miles or so over a route that was once the most dangerous road in the world.  It's pretty safe now, but that's because (a) violence is a fraction of what it was even six months ago, and (b) lots of precautions are still taken for every trip.  To go between Camp Victory and the International Zone, you have to ride in the convoy that ferries people back and forth.  It's composed of a bunch of vehicles straight out of Star Wars or Mad Max.  The Rhino, for instance, is the Winnebago From Hell.  It looks like a motorhome that's made out of armor plating painted flat black.  The MRAPs are big, evil-looking trucks with 50-cal machine guns up top.  And while I'm standing there looking the thing over, the driver jumps down and she was a little bitty blonde girl, maybe 19 years old, completely at home in this bizarre universe of armor plate and weaponry and the guys who use them.  Some things just don't seem right.  

Later that afternoon, the Colonel's relief came in.  The Colonel is our boss, a really good guy, a reservist in the Corps of Engineers.  Our new, soon-to-be boss is also a Colonel.  He isn't in the Corps, but he is an engineer, which is good.  Another good thing is that the two will get about a ten-day turnover period, which from my limited experience is absolutely necessary.  So we're pretty happy.

One person who isn't happy right now is my wife.  I talked to her earlier this evening.  It appears that our septic system at home has decided it's had enough and needs to be pumped.  You can guess how it communicated that to Janis.  And if you know Janis, you probably have a very colorful idea of how she reacted.  Which is probably very accurate, from what I heard earlier.  But J is a very resourceful woman and the problem is now under control.  And I'm sitting here thinking that sometimes being several thousand miles away from home can be a Good Thing.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman, RIP

Right after I posted the previous note, I saw that Paul Newman has died.  Most people think of him as a movie star.  I know that he was also one helluva good race driver.  In 1976, I was at the SCCA championships at Road Atlanta with a bunch of my fellow gearheads from college.  We saw that this actor guy, Paul Newman, had bought himself a race car and thought he was a driver.  He was going to get his butt kicked, no question, and we were debating which one of the many better teams was going to come out on top.  

One of the teams was the Huffaker effort, which was a quasi-factory team running a Triumph TR7 with Lee Mueller driving.  They qualified up front.  Newman had an older Triumph TR6; in fact, it was the car that had won the previous year.  He qualified respectably, but not on the front row.  Once the race started, though, Newman worked his way to the front and took the lead, running just ahead of the Huffaker entry.  I mean just ahead.  There was rarely more than one carlength between them.  Every lap, they'd come by with Newman in the lead and Mueller right on his tail, doing everything in his (considerable) power to get by.  We figured that Mueller was too good and that Newman would slip up somewhere, let him by, and finish second, which was still pretty respectable.  No dice.  That last lap, they came by with Newman still in the lead and the crowd was roaring.  Newman proved that he could drive, by God.  He didn't win by having more money than anybody else, he did it by beating the best driver in the field with an older car.  It was one of the best races I've ever seen.  

Newman subsequently went on to win something like three national championships and a lot of really tough races, like the Sebring 12 hours.  But I'll always remember that race at Road Atlanta.

Godspeed, Paul.  

Saturday Evening

Yes, I know I haven't written anything in the past few days.  I've been spending a lot of time in the office trying to get up to speed as fast as possible.  I hate being the "new guy" who has to be told or shown everything - I need to feel like I'm contributing to the effort.  And when the effort is being done in an entirely different universe from my previous one, well, it takes a lot of time to learn.  I filled out my time sheet today and saw that I put in 148 hours in the past two weeks.  Which is just a little bit more than my normal time in the studio.  Just a little.  By a factor of, oh, seven.

So what's my day like?  Well, I get up at some ungodly early hour because my eyeballs pop open at around 3:30 and don't want to close again.  Sometimes I force myself to at least doze for another couple of hours.  Around 5, I get up and go to the gym, the pool, or for a jog.  After a shower, I'll go catch the bus to the Embassy.  Correction: I get dressed first, then catch the bus.  I'll eat breakfast at the DFAC at the Embassy.  The DFAC (pronounced deefak) is the Dining Facility.  (Nothing here goes by a real name, just acronyms.  There's the NEC, the NOC, the BX, GRD, you get the picture).  I get into the office about 0800 (that's 8 a.m. for you civilians).  Most of my time after that is spent on the computer or in meetings or slogging to this office or that.  Our whole office generally goes to lunch at the DFAC around noon.  Then it's back to the computer/meetings/slogging routine.  Dinner at the DFAC around 1800 (umm, 6 p.m.).  Back to the office for another one or two hours.  Call it quits around 8 or 9 pm and go catch the bus back to the NEC (pronounced "neck"; it's where I live).  Try to videochat with Janis.  Climb in bed and read a few pages of a crappy Robert Ludlum novel.  Turn out the lights.  Repeat again at 3:30 the next morning.  And the next day.  And the next.  Some wag called it "Groundhog Day with a gun."  Hey, we're in Baghdad, what else is there to do?

Occasionally my office crew will get out for a while.  In previous posts you've seen pictures of some of our "road trips".  They're a good break, but we're never gone for more than two or three hours.  Then we're pulled back to our cave and our computers, like moths to a flame.

This afternoon I broke the routine, though, and was able to spend some time doing "mind maintenance".  In other words, just putter around doing nothing.  I did a few sketches in the compound and it felt really good to be drawing again.  I quickly realized that I need to do a lot more sketches over at the main Embassy, though.  The new place is visually BOOORing.  Nothing interesting to look at.  The main Embassy, by contrast, is in one of Saddam's palaces, which is visually fun in a kinda cheesy way.  I can't figure out a politically correct way to say it except that "good taste" was a completely foreign concept.  (My friends who know about building construction would also note that "good engineering" was another foreign concept).  All of which is much more interesting to draw than the public housing project where I live now.

So that's it for today.  A boring entry because I've been living a boring life.  But there are some things on the horizon that will give me something more interesting to write about.  More on THAT later!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Nose to the Grindstone

The dust is back today.  Funny, it wasn't in the weather forecast yesterday.  That forecast called for several more days of clear weather with highs around 100-102 and lows around 70.  Good flying weather.  This morning, though, it was pretty dusty at first light and got thicker as the morning went on.  We all thought that the weather guessers finally poked their heads outside and said "Oh ... dust .... well, that changes things ..." and then updated their forecast accordingly.  Now it's supposed to be here for four days.

I sent a memo to my boss a week ago that outlined the status of several projects we're watching.  He must've thought it was interesting, because the next thing I know, it's being reformatted and routed up the chain to the Ambassador.  I thought, "Damn, I hope I got it all right ...."  It's called the "ohnosecond", that split second right after you hit the "send" button when you think, "ooohhh, NNOOOOOO!!!"  Actually, it wasn't that bad, my memo was pretty well researched, but still ...

Speaking of the Ambassador, I sat in on a meeting in which he was briefed by some pretty high-level people.  I was just a fly on the wall, really, which was more than fine with me.  I was really impressed by his grasp of what we were talking about, how well he knew it, and how deep he could probe with his questions.  Lesson learned: do your homework before getting up in front of The Man.

The past few days have been very intensive.  I've got a report to write and have been spending a lot of time digging through old records and talking to lots of people, trying to get the information together.  We're working on a lot of projects that have been in the works for maybe three or four years.  Some are nearing completion and some still have a long way to go.  Most of the people who dreamed up these projects have been long gone.  We have about a 80% turnover every year, so I can't just go talk with the person who started a project because they've probably been replaced two or three times already.  Meaning their files have been purged two or three times, too.  And some of them didn't keep very many records.  Which is understandable: when you're going full-bore day-in and day-out, there's not a lot of time to file stuff away.

So I operate on the assumption that the people who started these projects were pretty smart, and that the staffs that approved, funded, and implemented the projects were made up of knowledgeable, dedicated people who made the best decisions they could.  Which is what I see in the Embassy and in the military organizations every day.  

Now it's bedtime for Bonzo.  I'm gonna crawl in my sack, read about two pages of a trashy Robert Ludlum book, and be out.  Maybe the dust will be gone when I wake up.  Then again, maybe not!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Statues and Pictures and MRAPs, oh my!

No sooner had I made the last entry about not getting any photographs, than I got a chance to make some.  We went out for pizza today at lunch.  On the way there, we stopped to see the Saddam statues.  These huge things are bronze.  They're in storage on an American-controlled compound for their own safekeeping.  Saddam had them made with his features in a military uniform wearing headgear from the old Assyrian or Persian empires.  Ego-strokers.  If they were out in Baghdad proper, they'd have been destroyed by now.  Here they're safe from physical destruction if not the wit and wisdom of the occasional graffiti writer.

Going around the IZ is interesting.  Security is tight and checkpoints are everywhere.  So are military vehicles.  Humvees and MRAPs are particularly plentiful.  Everybody is familiar with the Humvee, but MRAPs are new.  They're tall and narrow, with V-shaped undersides to deflect the blast from an IED.  There were a bunch of Bradleys around, too, which are armored troop carriers with tank treads and some pretty heavy-duty guns.  And there were plenty more types of vehicles, some of which I'd never seen before.  This display of high-tech warfare prowess is straight out of the old Star Wars movies.  Come to think of it, the dining facilities can be, too.  Remember the barroom scene in the first Star Wars movie?  Go into one of the dining facilities and you can see soldiers and civilians from dozens of different countries in all kinds of garb.  Heck, I've seen an Arab sheikh in full regalia, a Dominican nun, workers from Kenya and Pakistan and who knows where, security force guards from maybe Bolivia, soldiers from Ukraine and Australia, and carabinieri from Italy (the carabinieri are bad-ass police officers - you do not mess with them in Italy!).  It's a bit disconcerting to see a young girl who looks like she should be in high school, going through the chow line with a big honking automatic rifle slung casually over her shoulder.  

I'm still getting up to speed at my job.  Remember when I said last week that I'd soon be making decisions on things I'd never heard of the week before?  It's happening.  I'm still on the steep side of the learning curve, but this afternoon I scribbled out a to-do note to myself and realized the whole thing was acronyms.  Nothing but letters and numbers that would've been completely meaningless just a few short days ago.  I'm learning a whole new process, figuring out who does what to whom, how it's done, why, and what's been done in the five years since the rebuilding process got started.  Frankly, it's kinda fun.  Like riding a skateboard down a steep hill and you're barely hanging on, much less in control.  I just hope I don't crash and burn!

My sleep cycle is still totally messed up.  I cannot get more than 3-4 hours at a stretch.  Then my eyeballs pop open and I'm ready to go.  Except it's maybe 1 in the morning and there are still six or seven hours before I need to get to work.  So I hit the gym or pool, do laundry, read, write in this blog, and go back to bed and try for another couple of hours.  Then between about 3 and 9 pm, I'm completely brain-dead.  Most annoying.  Everybody says it takes two weeks to get adjusted, but I've been here longer than that, and my body clock is still out of whack.

So right now it's about a quarter to four in the morning.  I'm gonna try for another couple hours of sleep.  'Night, all!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Psst ... Wanna See some Pictures?

I haven't been able to take many pictures while here ... maybe a couple and that's it.  For one, I haven't had time to go wander around with my camera.  For another, my camera is rather large (a faux-SLR) and some security guards tend to focus in on large cameras.  "Not allowed!"  

There is a website, though, that has a great description of life in the Baghdad Embassy.  It's called "Baghdad Anne: My One Year In Iraq".  It was written by a State Department employee who was here in the 2006-2007 timeframe.  Anne has some great photos and information about the Palace that we work in, plus a lot of discussion about what life here is like.  It's still pretty accurate.  One thing about life in the International Zone is that things change constantly, and so some of the things she wrote about have changed and some of the things she took pictures of don't look like that any more.  There's a new person who has taken up the challenge of keeping that website up to date.  He arrived here about a month before I did and he's written a few entries.  So if you want to see some pictures of our place and read a bit more about it, go see the Baghdad Anne site.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My Mutt's Medical Malaise

My sweet little dog Indy continues to have new developments in dealing with her Addison's Syndrome.  I've blogged about this in previous entries dating back to March.  Addison's is a condition in which the adrenal gland shuts down and can be deadly if not treated properly.  In her case, she goes to the vet once a month for a shot, and we give her the sterioid Prednizone twice a day.  Both of these medications make up for chemicals that the adrenal gland should be making.

One of the effects of too much Prednizone is incontinence, and poor little Indy has had several bouts with that, and in the past week she's had several a day.  We've tried cutting back on the Prednizone before, but that led to serious issues and frantic trips to the vet, so we didn't want to do that again.  So Janis took her in to the vet again today to see what can be done about it  The answer was a bit surprising and encouraging.  Turns out that when female dogs are spayed, their uterus and ovaries are removed, and that means they don't make estrogen.  The adrenal glands also make a bit of estrogen.  And estrogen plays a big role in keeping the smooth muscle fiber strong, which is what the bladder sphincter is made of.  The vet gave Janis some pills that strengthen the smooth muscle, which should help Indy's problem.  We'll know in a week whether it works.  Since it has a 90% success rate, I'm pretty confident.

That smart little dog, by the way, has figured out what telephone rings mean.  If Janis leaves her cell phone somewhere and it rings, Indy will go find Janis and get her attention.  And if Janis is taking a nap, Indy will lick her face until she wakes up and answers the phone!  What a dog, my sweet little Indy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Let Me Get This Straight ...

This was forwarded to me this morning and it was too true to keep to myself ...

I'm a little confused. Let me see if I have this straight.....

 * If you grow up in Hawaii, raised by your grandparents, you're "exotic, different."

* Grow up in Alaska eating mooseburgers,  a quintessential American story.

* If your name is Barack you're a radical, unpatriotic Muslim.

* Name your kids Willow, Trig and Track, you're a maverick.

* Graduate from Harvard law School and you are unstable.

* Attend 5 different small colleges before graduating, you're well grounded.

 * If you spend 3 years as a brilliant community organizer, become the first black President of the Harvard Law Review, create a voter registration drive that registers 150,000 new voters, spend 12 years as a Constitutional Law professor,  spend 8 years as a State Senator representing a district with over 750,000 people, become chairman of the state Senate's Health and Human Services committee, spend 4 years in the United States Senate representing a state of  13 million people while sponsoring 131 bills and serving on the Foreign Affairs, Environment and Public Works and Veteran's Affairs committees, you don't have any real leadership experience.

 * If your total resume is: local weather girl,  4 years on the city council and 6 year as the mayor of a town with less than 7,000 people, 20 months as the governor of a state with only 650,000 people, then you're qualified to become the country's second highest ranking executive.

 * If you have been married to the same woman for 19 years while raising 2 beautiful daughters, all within Protestant churches, you're not a real Christian.

 * If you cheated on your first wife with a rich heiress, and left your disfigured wife and married the heiress the next month, you're a Christian.

 * If you teach responsible, age appropriate sex education, including the proper use of birth control, you are eroding the fiber of society.

 * If , while governor, you staunchly advocate abstinence only, with no other option in sex education in your state's school system while your unwed teen daughter ends up pregnant , you're very responsible.

 * If your wife is a Harvard graduate laywer who gave up a position in a prestigious law firm to work for the betterment of her inner city community, then gave that up to raise a family, your family's values don't represent America's.

 * If you're husband is nicknamed "First Dude", with at least one DWI conviction and no college education, who didn't register to vote until age 25 and once was a member of a group that advocated the secession of Alaska from the USA, your family is extremely admirable.

OK, much clearer now.

Breathing Dust

We're in Day 3 of a choking dust storm.  "Storm" isn't quite the right word, since that implies lots of wind.  There's hardly any wind.  Instead, the dust has settled in like a thick orange fog.  I didn't take the picture above (it's a year or two old), but it's accurate.  Yes, it really is that orange ... at least it is in the late afternoon.  If you spend any time outside, you need to wear a mask, or pull a bandana over your face, and wear a set of goggles.  I don't, of course, so when I go outside, immediately I feel the grit in my eyes followed a few minutes later by a heaviness in the chest.  And this morning I saw people out jogging in it!  What were they thinking??  Our temperatures, by the way, have been cooling off: highs of around 105 and lows around 80.

Some time ago, I noted that that I'd probably never get to drive while over here.  Wrong!  If you go anywhere in the International Zone, driving is often the best way.  Even though nothing is all that far from anything else, at least in a straight line, getting through all the security can mean long, roundabout routes in the heat.  So we drive.  My office has two armored Ford Excursions.  We took one over to a meeting this afternoon, and on the way back, I drove.  Quite an interesting experience.  If you can imagine what it would feel like to pilot a railroad locomotive that was outfitted with four rubber tires and a steering wheel, you'd have a good idea.  It's big.  It's HEAVY.  It has a big honking diesel engine that takes a long time to get going.  It's HEAVY.  It's filthy dusty on the inside.  It's HEAVY.  The windows and windshield are maybe an inch and a half thick, the doors weigh about 400 pounds apiece, and Lord only knows what the roof weighs.  All this mass is way up above the ground, so in the corners it leans so far you can scrape the doorhandle on the pavement.  And did I mention it was heavy?  To top it off, the roads here are for crap.  They're full of potholes, there are speed bumps everywhere, and in a lot of the compounds we're driving over dirt.  So we bounce a lot.  Imagine a diesel locomotive bouncing over a rough dirt road ... it would be in a kind of slow motion, wouldn't it?  Yep.  So, as you might imagine, our trucks are beat to hell.  The one I drove had less than 7,000 miles on it and feels like it's ready for the junkyard.  

But I'm not complaining too much.  I still got to drive, and it was quite fun.

The weatherguessers say we'll have one more day of this dust before it clears out.  Sure hope so.  I want to go for a jog again.

I think my body clock is finally finding its way to the right time zone.  The past two nights I've actually gotten a good bit of sleep.  And in a big important meeting this afternoon, with lots of high-powered VIPs in attendance, I didn't nod off until the very end.  Progress!

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Just to show that I really am in Iraq, and not sitting poolside in a Club Med sipping daiquiries and soaking up the eye candy, here's a photo of dorky ol' me taken yesterday. This is at the "Crossed Swords" arch, which is just down the road from the new Embassy compound. All of us in the office went out for lunch at the best pizza place in the whole International Zone. No, it's not the only pizza place in the International Zone ... there's one at the Base Exchange. So the competition is stiff.

Today the wind picked up a bit and it got dusty. Really dusty. This afternoon, it looked like a thick orange fog had rolled in. Or that the window had been tinted a deep orange. Only it wasn't fog. It was dust. A nasty dust that makes your eyes gritty and gets into everything you have. If you spend any time outdoors, like the guards do, you need to wear a mask and goggles so you can see and breathe.

I got a good bit of sleep last night (yaay!) and am about to hit the rack and try it again. Wish me luck!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

All I Want is a Good Night's Sleep

One of the big issues for people just arriving in Baghdad is that your body clock is ALL messed up.  My body clock fell out of the plane somewhere over Newfoundland and it seems to have resurfaced in Bangkok.  So my awake/sleep cycle is seriously out of whack with official Embassy time.  As I mentioned in a previous post, afternoons are the worst: I go brain dead about 3 pm and stay that way for four or five hours before starting to pick up.  Then I get perkier as it gets closer to the time the clock on the wall says to go to bed.  And when I do get to sleep, it's only for three hours at a stretch.  They say it takes two weeks to get adjusted.  I'm sayin', any time now ....

Yesterday I went jogging early in the morning.  (Hey, I couldn't sleep, what else was there to do?).  It was pretty nice: perfect temperature of around 80, very dry, clear skies.  There were one or two other joggers out there.  The compound's security force has a lot of guys and I exchanged "good mornings" with all of them as I plop-plop-plopped past.  Somewhere overhead there were several fighter jets circling around.  You can hear 'em but never see 'em.  Two or three flights of helicopters whopped past along the river, heading into and out of the International Zone (aka "Green Zone").  I find those sights and sounds very comforting.

Speaking of helicopters, if you're a helo pilot who wants to fly, this is the place for you.  My office is near the landing zone and these guys go all day long.  Every ten minutes several Blackhawks or Hueys or something come zooming in or out.  They fly all day, every day.  I was talking with a guy involved with their operations and he said that the typical helo pilot working at the Embassy has over 15,000 flight hours under his belt before he even applies for the job.  I'll keep that in mind next time I go flying with them.  They know their stuff.

One of the neat things about technology is that Janis and I have been able to videochat almost every day.  I've got internet in my room, and there's just enough bandwidth to have the chat.  Quite the change from my previous deployments.  Letters, cards, and care packages are great, talking on the telephone is wonderful, but videochat is the best.  It's the next best thing to being there.

Okay, 'nuf for now.  I'm gonna go read a cheap sci-fi book and see if I can make myself go back to sleep.  Toodles!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Through the Fears: Rememberance and honor

The blog Through the Fears is written by my good friend Genie Maples, a fellow artist in Asheville.  Today's entry is the most thoughtful piece I've ever seen on what the phrase "9/11 changed everything" really means.  Go take a look.  Through the Fears: Rememberance and honor

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Getting To My Feet, One Cappuccino At A Time

I think I've officially completed my check-in process.  I've filled out a gazillion forms and given them to people all over hell's half-acre, been signed in and signed up, been given innumerable familiarization briefs, and met dozens of people.  I even recognize a few of them in the hallways now, as I scurry by enroute yet another briefing.  My boss says that if I think I'm done, I'm mistaken - I just haven't found out about something I'm supposed to do.  He's probably right.

We have an interesting work week.  It's Sunday through Thursday.  Yep, we're on Arabic time here.  Fridays and Saturdays are our "weekend", but that only means that we can sleep in a little later and not work quite so many hours.  Workday officially starts at 0800 (that's 8 a.m. for you civilians).  Damned if I know when it "ends", since nobody leaves before 6 and it's often much later when the lights finally go out.  On "weekends", we work maybe four to six or eight hours.  That's a half-day, isn't it?

I think my body clock fell out of the airplane somewhere over Newfoundland on the trip over here, and it hasn't caught up to me yet.  Mid-afternoon is a particularly difficult time.  Put me in a meeting or briefing and I'm in a world of hurt.  Yesterday I attended a meeting in late afternoon that was chaired by the deputy director of our organization.  A high mucky-muck.  And they put me right beside him.  And I tell you, it took everything I had to keep from falling into ZZZZ-land.  I never heard a word from that meeting.  I was too busy telling myself "Do NOT fall asleep!  Do NOT bounce your forehead off the table!  Do NOT snore like a buzzsaw!"  I think I stayed awake, but sure wouldn't swear to it.

In between getting signatures on my check-in sheet, I've been trying to learn as much as possible about my new job.  And there's a lot to learn.  There are tons of projects, all with their own acronyms, plus learning all the different organization charts for all the groups associated with these projects, plus learning the names of the people filling out those organization charts, plus the names of their predecessors since all these jobs turn over every year.  There are several different ways that our projects get created, and for each way, I need to know who starts the projects, who reviews them, who approves them, where the money comes from, where it goes, how it gets disbursed, who executes the project, who reviews the execution, and who signs off on it.

And I need to do all this quickly.  I'll be making decisions next week on things that I had never even heard of last week.

Still, it looks like an exciting time.  I'm going to have to keep my nose to the grindstone for a while, but I'm confident I can do it.  Hell, the Navy spent 22 years putting me in charge of things I knew nothing about, and this really isn't any different.

When I'm not checking in or learning my new job, I've been poking around the Palace, New Embassy Compound, and the International Zone, seeing what's here.  Some of the neat things I've found:

    - We have a pretty good gym right across the street from my apartment building, and I've got a routine set up for the machines.  

    - There's a pool next door to the gym, and I've hit it a couple of times.  Since it's been many years since I've been swimming, I wear myself out in very short order.  Very short.  But I'll get my endurance up.  Maybe.  

    - In the Palace, there's a huge room that's the Green Bean Cafe.  They make a really good cappuccino there, so in mid-afternoon, you know where to find me.

    - There are a very few interesting shopping opportunities here.  I got a quick tour of the IZ a couple of days ago and some of them were pointed out to me.  I'll revisit them ... well, sometime.

All for now.  There's much more I could write.  But it seems like this place turns into "Groundhog Day with a gun" in pretty short order for most people, so I need to save some things to write about when it happens to me.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Birthdays and Bad Tidings

Two items about people who I care about.

First, my beautiful niece Holly turned 19 today.  I'd post a picture, but I don't have one.  Happy birthday, Holly!

Next is some bad news.  My friend Jen's beloved dog Klaus is dying of inoperable cancer.  She wrote an exceptionally powerful entry in her blog today that talks about her ongoing trip through the hell that is losing a loved one.  Be strong and read it.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Settling In

I'm getting settled in to my new situation here in Baghdad.  I'm situated in my new office and working with a good group of people.  My living quarters are pretty posh for a war zone.  I've spent much of the past few days getting checked in with the Embassy, which means I've logged many miles walking the corridors to find offices tucked away in obscure corners ... usually several times, since they're never open the first time I go by.  All in all, things are looking good.

My job is going to be very interesting.  For one thing, it's still to be defined.  For another, nobody really knows how long I'll be doing it ... nor how long my office will exist, nor what functions will go where, if and when there's a reorganization.  So you could say it's in a state of flux.  But that's not really a bad thing.  Our mission is to help the Iraqis get their country rebuilt and on its feet again, so as they stand up, we stand down.  During my training in Washington, we were told to "work yourselves out of a job".  Within my office, much has already been done (exactly how much has been done was quite stunning to me, to tell the truth).  We're in the wrap-up stages now.  No new projects, just making sure our remaining ones are completed as specified, and that none are falling through the cracks.  That last bit, figuring out which ones are falling through the cracks, is what my job will entail.  More or less.  And when that's all wrapped up, it'll be the Iraqi's responsibility from there on out.  We'll close down this particular function and I'll probably be tasked with closing down some other shop.  And as more things are closed down, more people can be sent home at the end of their tours without a replacement.  In other words, we're working on a drawdown.  Regardless of what happens in politics this fall.

There are two State Department-owned compounds in Baghdad.  One is the existing Embassy, which is in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.  The other is the New Embassy Compound, which is about a mile down the road.  The NEC, as it's called, is just now opening up.  Over the next few months, most of the offices in the Palace will move to the NEC.  It's a modern-looking compound of several office buildings, several more "apartment" buildings, and a large building housing the gym, pool, laundry, dining facility, and lots of empty (for now) spaces.  They're all modern and comfortable, but a bit sterile.  And they're built very sturdily.  I live in one of the apartments.  It's a 2-bedroom place with a kitchen and bath.  Haven't met my roommate yet - he's apparently on a trip somewhere.  I was lucky, though: the apartments just recently opened up; before that, everybody who arrived was put into the trailers surrounding the Palace.  Most of the trailers are the size and shape of shipping containers.  These provided a home to two people in bedrooms at each end, with a shared bath in the middle.  Not too good, but better than living in a tent!

I work at the Palace compound.  It really is a palace: it's huge.  I'll save a description of it for a future entry as it'll need a lotta blog space all by itself.  We're not going to be in the Palace for very much longer, though.  The Iraqis want it back and we need to move into our new digs.  So increasingly, over the next few months, functions in the Palace will move down the road until everything is out.  Then the construction crews will go in and rip out all the modifications that we've made over the past few years and restore it, more or less, to a somewhat move-in condition.  Maybe they'll be done by the time I leave next year.  Then again, considering all that needs to be done, maybe not.

I talked about the heat in my last entry.  I'm surprised at how quickly I'm adjusting to it.  This isn't a North Carolina "85 degrees and 85 percent" heat.  It's hot but dry, so your sweat evaporates quickly and you don't feel the heat.  Then again, you go through a lotta water when you're outside.  Fortunately, I'm not outside all that much, and the air conditioning inside is pretty effective.  Thank God!

Well, enough for now.  I'm alive and well, finding my way in this new world, and having a good time.  Despite the difficulties of being away from Janis and the girls (er, dogs), I'm glad I'm here.  This is going to be a very interesting and rewarding year.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Welcome to Baghdad

I arrived in Bahdad yesterday afternoon.  It was a long trip, including two nights in transit.  But I'm finally here, have started the check-in process, established phone contact with Janis, and gotten a few hours worth of sleep.  Time to catch up on this narrative.  This is going to be a LONG entry, just so you're warned.

The visit home was great.  (Heck, I'm already using the term "visiting home", what does that tell you?)  But then on Monday it was time to pack my bags, and packing was just as hard on all of us as it was the last time.  Even the dogs picked up on the fact that the suitcases came out and I was sorting things to go in them.  They got up on the bed and gave me That Look.  Poor Janis, who wears her heart on her sleeve, just got more and more miserable as Monday went on.  

Tuesday was D-Day.  We left the house a bit before noon and went to the airport.  There, we parked in the shade so the dogs wouldn't get too hot.  I said my goodbyes to them and we headed for the terminal.  About halfway there, I looked back and there were two little heads poking out the window watching us go away.  Once inside, I checked my bag ($15, thank you US Airways) and was ready to go.  Saying goodbye to Janis was the hardest thing in the world.  We must've been quite a sight, two old fogies standing there holding on to each other for all we're worth.  But then it was over.  I went in the restaurant for a cup of coffee that I really didn't need, just to settle myself down.  How Janis made it home in one piece is beyond me.  

The hops from Asheville to Charlotte and then to Dulles were about as exciting as watching toast brown.  I deliberately gave myself a long layover in Dulles so that, if there were any difficulties en route (like a lost bag), there would be time to fix things.  There weren't any difficulties, though, so my only problem was filling a few dead hours at Dulles.  Then we boarded our Air France flight and left for Paris.

I had a lot of expectations for Air France and they didn't disappoint.  It started off right at the counter with no fee to check a bag (take that, US Airways).  The cabin attendants were all impossibly good-looking in an elegant French way, as well as being quite attentive and efficient.  Each seat had its own pillow and blanket, and the attendants came by with packets that contained a set of headphones, eyeshades, and a moist towellette.  The seats all had little screens in them and the flight was stocked with a wide range of complimentary movies, TV shows, music, flight tracking, and more.  And the food!  Remember, this is Air France.  Rather than being handed a plate of mystery meat and processed soybeans at some exorbitant extra cost, we were given a menu that read:

Tabbouleh and salmon

Choice of main course: 

  - Saute of beef with carrots accompanied by mashed potatoes or

  - Chicken served with Riesling wine sauce, rice and broccoli



Berry chocolate cake

Coffee and tea

I had the chicken and it was very good.  And since this was Air France, I also had a nice little bottle of Vin de Pays d'Oc Cabernet Merlot 2007 La Baume.  Quite amusing.  They even gave us metal knives, forks, and spoons.  Now when was the last time you saw that on an American airline?

The only problem with the flight was that it was a red-eye and I just do not sleep on airplanes.  So by the time we landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I had a stiff neck, puffy eyes, and had given myself a wedgie while squirming around trying to get comfortable.  Getting to my next flight was a challenge.  They parked us away from the terminal and shuttled us in with buses.  And it took forever to get people moving off the plane.  It took about 45 minutes from the time we landed to the time we actually arrived in the building.  The terminal itself was a rat's maze with cordons everywhere and more screening of carry-on bags and passports.  Even though I was moving at a pretty good clip, I still made it to my next gate just five minutes before boarding - and this with two hours between the landing of one flight and departure of the next!  Lesson learned: give yourself plenty of time in Charles de Gaulle airport.

The next leg was to Amman, Jordan, also on Air France.  It was an uneventful flight.  The attendants were just as impossibly good-looking as the previous crew and the food was just as good.  There was a rowdy bunch of Jordanians on the flight who were having a wonderful time in the back and cheered and clapped when we landed.  Once off the plane, though, the airport was a bit of a zoo.  Fortunately, I was met by someone who ushered me through customs and got me to the hotel.  If I'd have had to figure out the process, get my bags, and get a cab, I'd still be there.

The travel people had made a reservation for me at a 5-star hotel in a nice section of Amman.  Quite good.    I showered up and went down to one of the restaurants for dinner.  I basically had the place to myself.  Don't know if it was because it was already late by then (after 9 pm) or because it was the second or third day of Ramadan.  Whatever, I had the full attention of the manager, cook, assistant cook, and an army of servers.  (And to tell the truth, I get very uncomfortable in situations like that.  I don't want a flock of people hovering over me, looking for any sign that I might possibly want something.  I'm much more at home sitting at the counter in a Waffle House listening to a middle-aged waitress call me "Honey" while shouting my order to the cook.)  But the food was excellent and there was way, way, way too much of it.  Of course, with the manager checking up on me every few minutes and getting very concerned when there was still food on my plate, I ate way too much.  I finally got to bed about 11 pm and was up two hours later to pop some Alka-Seltzer.  "I can't believe I ate the whoooole thing."  "You ate it, dumbass."  Finally drifted off to sleep again about 5 for two fitful hours.

A driver picked me up at the hotel to take me to the military airport.  He was a really pleasant guy.  Since we were running a little early, he showed me around Amman a bit, to include the ancient Roman citadel and amphitheater.  Both he and my previous driver were very proud of Amman and Jordan and were eager to tell me all about it.  Neither of them were boastful, they just knew that their country had a lot of cool things to offer and wanted me to know about some of them.  We got to the airport about 9:30 and I joined about 40 other people waiting for the Baghdad flight.  Finally, about three hours later, we were ushered onto a bus and taken to a C-17 sitting out on the tarmac.

There's something inherently reassuring to me about military cargo planes and this was no exception.  They're big and stark, with all their plumbing and wiring hanging out there for everyone to see.  There's no hiding behind decorative panels.  If you want to know what condition the airframe is in, just take a look, it's right there by your left hand.  And the Air Force crewmen take very good care of their planes.  They loaded all us scruffy civilians into their baby very efficiently and took off.  The flight took only about an hour and 15 minutes.  I'd heard some very entertaining stories about the final approach into Baghdad, but this was pretty normal for an Air Force flight: they just nosed the plane over, threw on the air brakes, and flew straight in.  Once on the ground, they unloaded the pallets of cargo and bags and we marched out the tail of the plane onto the ground.

And it was HOT.  Motherfucker, it was hot.  I thought the heat was from the jet blast, but no, it was the frickin' air.  Try setting your oven on 400 degrees and standing in front of it.  Better yet, climb in.  It was a dry, roasty, gritty heat.  The airport was a busy place, with helicopters flying around, front-end loaders driving by, squads of soldiers wielding big honking backpacks trudging along, a line of armored vehicles sporting 50-caliber machine guns idling in the parking lot.  We got checked in with little difficulty - a couple of idiots who should've known better had been taking pictures as they got off the plane, and taking pictures of an active military flight line is a no-no.  

I wound up in the group heading to the Embassy compound.  We were issued our helmets and flak vests, then marched back out on the flight line to get on the helicopters that would take us in.  Watching the four helos come toward us across the airport, I was reminded of the scene from Apocalypse Now, and could hear in my head the strains of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries.  When the helos came in, their air blast knocked over bags and blew hot gritty sand all over us.  It was like standing in front of a giant hair dryer set on High.

The flight was quite fun.  We flew in a loose line at just a couple hundred feet above ground, zigzagging back and forth.  These helos are pretty open, so the hot desert air blew through.  Helos are noisy and bouncy, with a steady WHOPWHOPWHOPWHOP from the blades and a ride like going over railroad tracks in a truck.  We curved over the river and dropped right in on the Embassy.  I'd made it to my new home.  

One of the people from my new office met me at the heliport and took me in tow.  I briefly met my new boss and then hooked up with my sponsor.  We got dinner and then I was taken to my new digs.  After unpacking and a shower, I felt almost human again.  I did some arranging of my nest and hit the rack.  Now it's ridiculously early in the morning, but I'm wide awake.  Guess I'll go grab some breakfast and find my way to the office.  They said to not bother showing up until noon (it's Friday, which is the "weekend", meaning you can sleep in, but what the hell, I'm up anyway.)  So I'll try to find an internet connection on the way in and post this as soon as I can.

Baghdad.  My new home.  I'm ready to go to work.

And it's HOT.