Sunday, December 23, 2012

New Web Site

I have a new website.  I posted it last weekend and then spent five days getting the email working again.  Now it appears that everything is fully up and running and I'm pretty excited about it.

I started working on the new site months ago while I was still in Afghanistan.  The old site looked okay but was a pain in the keister to update.  The reason was that it was all done in basic html code, which required me to write every bit of coding by hand.  My friend Genie Maples told me about, which is a web hosting site that has a lot of pre-built templates and drag-and-drop features.  I tried messing with it and it was much easier to put pages together, change them around, add pictures, and delete stuff.  So after returning home from Afghanistan, I got serious about building a new site.  It was finished and launched last weekend.

But then came troubles with email.  When I moved the site from my previous location (WestHost) to Weebly, the associated email died.  I was on the online chat every day with the WestHost support techs trying to get everything straightened out.  The problem was that I got the domain name ( through WestHost, and that meant that the email needed to stay there as well.  But the actual site was hosted at Weebly.  So some of the settings needed to point to Weebly and some to WestHost.  And to say they were very particular is an understatement.

Have you ever dealt with tech support guys?  I've always found them to be friendly, smart, over-worked, and generally dismissive of every other tech support guy's approach.  Every one of 'em knows a better way of doing things, and when you tell him what the last guy told you to do, he'll just smirk and go off in a different direction.  WestHost's tech support was pretty good, but I talked with six guys over six days and each one of them took a slightly different approach.  But, finally, one of them took the bull by the horns, went into my site, and changed the settings himself.  And got the email working.

So now everything is fully operational.  I'd appreciate it if you would take a look, bang on buttons, test the email, Facebook, and LinkedIn connections, and let me know what you think.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ruby Sparks

We watched the movie Ruby Sparks last night and today.  That sounds a bit odd, like we watched it twice, but no.  It came in from Netflix and we slapped it into the player last night.  I watched it for a while, but it looked like a romantic comedy, so I bailed out and left Janis to watch it.  I was in our office and could hear a bit of it, and as it developed, it was clearly not a romantic comedy.  So I cheated: I googled it.  And what I found made me want to go back and see it from the beginning.

So that's what I did this afternoon.  And it was really good.

Ruby Sparks is a modern update of the ancient Greek tale of Pygmalion.  This is the tale of the artist who created a sculpture so beautiful that he fell in love with it.  The gods interceded and brought her to life.  In this film, the artist is Calvin (played by Paul Dano), who is a writer.  He creates his ideal girlfriend, Ruby Sparks (played by Zoe Kazan).  I'm not going to say more as I don't want to give the plot away, but you can go to Wikipedia or a number of other sites and get a detailed blow-by-blow description.

What I will talk about, though, are the themes.  The main one is the difference between the ideal of love and its actuality.  Ruby, being a creation of Calvin's imagination, is his ideal of what a girlfriend would be like.  This does not, however, result an ideal relationship.  Another theme is that of control.  Since Ruby is Calvin's creation, he can control what she feels, thinks, and does.  This gets into some chilling situations as he deliberately changes her behavior in order to prove his control.

I related to this second theme in an unexpected way.  It reminded me very much of the process in creating a painting.  I often start out a painting with an idea of what it should eventually be.  This is the ideal that I'm striving for.  However, as the painting develops, it takes on a life of its own.  I can direct it to some extent, but it gradually starts to exert its own demands.  The best results come when I work with the painting and let it tell me what it needs.  Jackson Pollack described this best:
When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.

That's when it is working best.  When I try to direct it, to exert my will on the painting, it turns into a fight.  If the fight goes on too long, then I lose the painting.  And this same theme was explored in Ruby Sparks.

A surprise to me was Zoe Kazan.  She not only played the female lead, she also developed and wrote the script and served as executive producer.  She's the grand-daughter of Elia Kazan and a graduate of Yale University.  In other words, this young lady has the chops: an intelligent, capable, beautiful young woman who's an excellent actress, writes great scripts, and can bring a complicated Hollywood project to the screen.  Paul Dano also did an excellent job.  In real life, he's Zoe's boyfriend, and he was very believable in this role.  The movie also benefited from some high-powered talent playing supporting roles, namely Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, and Elliot Gould.  All did an excellent job and obviously had a good time doing it.

So I highly recommend Ruby Sparks.  It's such a pleasure to find an exceptional film that has something intelligent to say, while having fun doing it.  Get it on Netflix and see what you think.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Weekend Update

As noted in my last post, I came down with a cold right at the end of our visit to our friends in Laurel.  Ten days later, I still have it, although it has finally started getting a bit better.  This has been a rough one, too, and I've felt like walking crap all week.  I've been hearing that others have had it for up to three weeks, which is NOT a positive sign.

I've spent this week working on two different projects.  One is setting up a consulting/professional services business.  That one is moving along slowly as I'm doing some research into basic questions of what, how, why, and when.  Not much to report on that one yet.

The other is the art studio business.  No, I don't have a studio, and I'm going through withdrawals because of it.  That's not the issue.  This week, I've been working on revamping my web site.  I built it years ago, writing all my own html code and revising it over the years.  It's a pain in the butt to update, though.  One of my artist friends uses Weebly, which is a web host that's really easy to work with, and I've been building an entirely new web site on it.  As part of that effort, I've been doing a lot of digging through old stuff, writings, blog posts, and more, and it's been both fun and interesting to remember the various twists and turns my art has taken over the past several years.

Now the new site is finally done.  Now I'm trying to get it activated and, unlike everything Weebly and my current web host say, that's not a simple task.  Weebly provides some simple directions that don't seem to apply to my current host.  When I contacted my current host's tech support, I got a really nice guy who obviously knows a lot.  For example, one of the things he said was:
Generally your records that you want set up are * @ and www 
So one record for *, one record for @, and the last for www. That should be a good start, and if you need any more records you add them about the same.
Generally @ can just be the IP address, * and www can be CNAMEs which are basically an alias, and those can just point to

I have no idea what that means.

So I changed my settings according to my best guess as to what Weebly and my web host said, hit "save", and am firmly convinced that my web site is going to be down for a week until some genius tech support guy comes to my aid and unscrews everything I've screwed up.

In the meantime, I'm looking for potential exhibition venues for the "Faces of Afghanistan" exhibit.  I've sent several proposals out and am looking for more, particularly in the Washington, DC, area.

For this week, my goals are to (1) get my studio website up and running and (2) move the ball down the field with the consulting business.  Exciting?  No.  But it's grunt work that has to be done.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

A Week Away

We were out of town this past week.  My cousin's son got married near Annapolis last weekend.  Janis and I drove up to Annapolis to stay with most of the wedding party at the Westin Hotel.  We had a ton of stuff to take, so we went in the truck (a Nissan Frontier), which was the first time we'd used it on a road trip.  Turned out to be fairly decent on the highway: it loafed along quietly at 70-80, rode pretty well, and gave us lots of room and visibility.  Still, the drive took 10 1/2 hours, which was a couple of hours longer than we really like to be in a car.  The dogs were perfect little angels, though.  Not a complaint out of them at all.

The Westin is a pretty high-end hotel.  When you see the valets parking Ferraris, Mercedes and Porsches outside the front door, you know it'll be tony.  But when you're forking out that kind of money for a room, you'd expect to get free internet and other services, and the Westin fell short on that score.  Seemed like everything was available, but only for a price that was usually exorbitant, like $3 for a can of  Coke.  Getting nickel-and-dimed to death is annoying, particularly when it's really $5'd-to $10'd to death.

On the flip side, it was good to see family again, some of whom we hadn't seen in years.  We met the bride for the first time, and she's a very lovely, intelligent, and accomplished woman.  Logan won the lottery with this young lady.  We wandered around Annapolis a bit during the day to visit old haunts.  In the evening was the rehearsal dinner at O'Brien's and it was really outstanding.  No expense was spared and O'Brien's delivered.

The wedding was on Saturday.  Janis had her hair done during the day, while I had to make a last-minute run to Nordstrom's when I discovered that I'd left my tie at home.  Ooops!  Yes, I'm still hearing about it a week later ... and will probably hear about it for years to come.  But we got to the wedding site early anyway.  The ceremony was well-done and thankfully not too long.  Janis noticed that the bride was wearing a Vera Wang dress, and she looked like a million bucks.  

Then there was the dinner and toasts and speeches and music and dancing.  It was a great time.  Being old farts, J and I left fairly early to let the kids party.  "Kids" ... they're all in their late 20's and early 30's, hardly kids at all!

The next morning, we had breakfast with many of the wedding guests and then hit the road.  But we didn't go too far: we went to visit some old friends in Maryland for a few days.  Oz and Laura have three young kids and that made for a pretty chaotic time.  But they're great kids and it was loads of fun to see them.  I had two business meetings during the week, but other than that, it was a chaotic/relaxing visit.  Until I started coming down with a cold at the end.  Being around three Mobile Virus Incubators (MVI's, otherwise known as "kids") will do that to you.

We headed home on Thursday, out to I-81 and down through the Shenandoah Valley.  I have long thought that this is one of the most beautiful drives in the world.  Particularly on that day, as it was clear and bright for most of the trip and traffic was light.  My cold, however, hit high gear.  Sore throat, feverish, body aches, the whole bit.  Janis did a lot of the driving.  We got home after a bit less than 9 hours and I hit the rack soon afterward.

So we're home again.  I'm over the worst of the cold, thank God, but not in any kind of mood to be productive.  All I want to do is lie around and read trashy novels and doze off.  There are things that need to be done but, screw it, they'll wait.  It's nice to have that option.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lincoln: The Movie

As mentioned in my last post, we went to see Lincoln this past weekend.  It blew me away.  I never thought that a movie about political maneuvering would be so engrossing, but it was.  The acting on all counts was superb.  Our local reviewer thought the script was a bit heavy-handed, but I certainly didn't.  Conflicting goals, weighty decisions, and a serious situation don't lend themselves to levity.

The focus of the movie is on a few weeks in early 1865.  Lincoln was just re-elected as President.  He wants to use his new political capital to push the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives (it had already been approved by the Senate).  The amendment had the general support of most Republicans, who were the liberals of the time, and was staunchly opposed by the Democrats, who were the conservative party.  There were not enough votes safely in hand for the amendment to be approved.  At the same time, Lincoln was trying to end the war with the southern states.  These two goals were in conflict.  If the amendment was approved, Southern states would see it as an assault on their economy and would fight longer/harder.  If the war was ended before the amendment passed, then there would be little or no interest in passing the amendment.  So Lincoln's dilemma was: end the war, or pass the amendment?

Lincoln chose to pass the amendment first.  Apparently, although this was not specifically stated, he believed that the war would end within months anyway, so he had a very small window of opportunity to end slavery in the United States forever.  So he deliberately held off on peace talks with representatives of the southern states while he cajoled, pressured, bought off, and intimidated Republican and Democrat representatives into voting for the amendment.

All of this is history.  What is remarkable about the movie is how well it portrays how messy politics can be while pursuing high goals.  Daniel Day-Lewis is fabulous as Lincoln.  He looks like him, talks the way we've been told Lincoln talked, and acts the way we've been told Lincoln acted.  He is magnificent.  Sally Field is perfect as his wife Mary and gives a stunning performance.  Tommy Lee Jones did a great job as Thaddeus Stevens, and James Spader excelled as one of the President's arm-twisters.  There were no slackers in this movie.  Everybody brought their "A" game.  When you're in a Steven Spielberg movie about the greatest President ever, that's just what you do.

So after the fluff of Skyfall, it was good to see a really strong, deep, meaningful movie.  Kudos to all for creating such a landmark film.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Watching Movies

We went to our favorite movie theater yesterday to watch Skyfall, the new James Bond movie.  Going to the movies is something that I really appreciate after a year in Afghanistan.  This theater is a good multi-plex: big screen, clean and comfortable seats, huge buckets of popcorn with free refills, and a good sound system.  Quite a bit different from the Kandahar Air Field version, which was a projector, a T-wall, and whatever fold-up chair you brought!

Skyfall was a lot of fun.  It's your basic action flick.  Don't go looking for deep meanings in Bond movies.  Daniel Craig is the best Bond by far (my opinion) and he did a thoroughly creditable job.  So did Judy Dench as M.  There were lots of amazing chases, vicious fights, blowing stuff up, beautiful women, and more ammo expended that during the entire Iraq war.  What more could you ask for?

Out in the lobby, we saw a poster for the upcoming Jack Reacher movie.  We've read a bunch of the Reacher novels.  He's a former Army MP officer who is now out of the service.  He has no fixed home and wanders around the country, and wherever he goes, he finds serial killers on the loose, and kills them.  Reacher novels are the guilty pleasures you read at the beach, and they have even fewer redeeming qualities than Bond movies.  The problem with this movie, in my opinion, is the casting.  Reacher is a big guy, dark, brooding, monosyllabic.  A young Robert Mitchum would be the perfect guy for the role.  Maybe Daniel Craig with dark hair.  Instead, they cast Tom Cruise.  I mean, Tom Cruise?  Reacher is not a pretty little boy and I just don't see Cruise doing the role justice.  But what the heck, we'll go see it anyway.

Speaking of Cruise, last night we watched A Few Good Men.  This movie came out a couple of years after I had been stationed in Guantanamo Bay, so I had a special interest in it.  I think the courtroom scene with Jack Nicholson is one of the classic scenes of all moviedom.  Both actors were on the top of their form.  Much of the rest of the movie is just okay, but it's worth it for that one scene.

A couple of nights ago, we watched the new Spiderman.  This one was much better than the previous versions, in my opinion.  It stuck more closely to the original storyline, with Peter Parker as a high school kid, and in this movie, he behaved more like a teenager with serious issues.  So in addition to the great special effects and fight scenes, it had a bit of substance to it.  Good stuff.

Next weekend, we're going to go see Lincoln.  In between, we'll see what Janis has lined up with Netflix.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Studio Strolling

Now that the election is behind us, and all the political ads are finally off the TV (thank God!), we've been able to refocus on more routine things.  One of those is art.  Yesterday, Janis and I went down to the River Arts District in Asheville for the twice-annual Studio Stroll.

The River Arts District is Asheville's old industrial area.  It consists of a bunch of warehouses, factories, and mills, some dating back over 100 years, nestled along the river and the railroad tracks.  Most of the industries closed up back in the 50's to 80's, and beginning in the 90's, artists began moving in.  They started opening their studios once a year to the public to show what they were doing.  Later, they expanded to twice a year, once in June and again in November.

Back in 2003, right after I completed my studies at UNCA, I moved into the Cotton Mill Studios down in the River Arts District.  My studio partner was Christine Dougherty, and she's still there.  I worked in our studio pretty much full-time for the next five years.  For three of those years ('04, '05, and '06), I was the President of the River District Artists.  We had about 40 artists when I started and over 70 when I turned over the reins to Barbara Perez.  Now there are about 190.  It's amazing to me how the number of artists has grown so much.  The entire neighborhood has changed as well.  A number of restaurants have moved in, starting with Clingman Cafe, then 12 Bones (one of the nation's really great barbecue places), and more recently White Duck Taco Shop.  The Wedge Brewery, a first-rate microbrewery, opened as well.  Meanwhile, many of the old industrial businesses closed or moved out.  AVL Technologies, which makes satellite communications equipment (some of which made its way to my little base in Afghanistan) moved to a different location.  Most worrying, Dave Steel closed and tore down all its buildings.  Now it's a large, empty plot of land right in the middle of the District, just crying for a developer to come in and build some huge monstrosity that will drive up property values and rents and drive out the artists.

For years, Christine and I opened our studio to the public during the strolls.  That meant that I had to be in the studio all day long to talk to visitors and was unable to go around and see all the great art that was being done around me.  But a year and a half ago, in anticipation of going to Afghanistan, I moved out of the studio.  Now that my time deployed is over and I'm back in town, that means I can go to the Strolls and actually stroll.  So, yesterday, we did.

We went to several buildings and visited with old friends and new artists that I'd never met.  In the Wedge building, we visited our old friend Cindy Walton, who's doing some beautiful cold wax paintings.  Cindy and I were students together at UNCA and she has really hit her stride with these artworks.  In the Phil Mechanic Studios building, we visited the head mistress, Jolene Mechanic, and saw some really strong post-apocalyptic paintings by Brian Mashburn.

We went over to Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts and brought home two beautiful small ceramic pieces by Tish Cook.  In another building, we visited with our friend Carol Bomer.  Carol and I exhibited together in a gallery in Hendersonville years ago and I've loved her work ever since.  Yesterday, we brought one of her paintings home with us.

From personal experience, I can say that Studio Strolls are much more enjoyable when you're strolling rather than stuck in the studio.  It was wonderful to see so many old friends and new artists.  There's a lot of really strong work being done here.  It's one of the reasons I love this city.

I think we'll go back today.  

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Why I'm For Obama, Part 2: The Deficit

One of the hot-button issues in the election is the deficit.  Republicans have been lambasting Obama and the Democrats over the size of the deficit.  As is always the case, the truth is buried under sound bites, inflamed rhetoric, and complete falsehoods.  Two years ago, during the mid-term elections, it was also an issue, and I did my own study of the deficit.  I wanted to strip away all the hype and figure out what was really going on, how bad the deficit really was, how it got that way, and how to turn it around.  I ignored political grandstanding as much as possible and focused on hard facts.  Then I wrote a blog post about my findings.  It turned out to be fairly long, wonky, and full of numbers.  But the key points were these:
- Federal expenditures have averaged around 20% of the country's GDP over the past 60 years or so.  Revenues have usually been a notch or two lower, meaning we usually have run a deficit.
- When President Bush took office, we had a balanced budget, with a surplus of $153B.  The budget and revenues were 21.2% of the GDP, slightly higher than the long-term norm.
- When President Bush left office, the figures were way out of kilter.  Revenues had shrunk to 13.5% of  GDP while expenditures had risen to 24.7%.  In dollar terms, this resulted in a deficit of $1.4 trillion, which was only $400B less than the entire federal budget of eight years previous.
- Obama's budget for 2010 was slightly improved: expenditures of 25.1% of GDP, revenues of 17.4%, and a deficit of $1.17T.

Numbers tell only part of the story.  The huge imbalances of the Bush years resulted from several factors: the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, two wars, and fallout from the financial crisis (reductions in tax incomes, increases in social safety net expenditures, and comparatively minor expenditures from the stimulus and bailout).  Obama inherited all of those factors as they were getting worse.  Over the past couple of years, though, one war has ended and the second is winding down, the improving economy is reducing requirements for social safety net expenditures, and the stimulus and bailout are over.  I would have expected the projected budget deficit come down, and it has, but not enough.

Two years after my original blog post, both parties are still locked in a vicious dogfight over how to improve the economy and reduce the deficit.  The result is that no clear path has emerged.  Both sides voted for a "poison pill" budget that mandated massive cuts if Congress and the President were unable to agree on a more politically-acceptable solution.  Of course they weren't, so now we're facing the so-called fiscal cliff, in which spending cuts (split evenly between defense and social spending) and tax increases automatically kick in on January 1, 2013.  It's hard to find numbers I can believe in, as they're all over the board, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the deficit would be reduced by about $487B (to about $650B) in 2013 if the "fiscal cliff" is implemented.

There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth on both sides about the impact these spending cuts and tax increases would have, and rightly so.  However painful they are, though, they're nowhere near enough. To get to a balanced budget will require much, much more in both spending cuts and revenue increases.  For example, the current GDP is about $15.8T.  The federal government's historical average of 20% of GDP means its revenues and expenditures should be $3.16T.  To get to that level would require spending cuts of $640B and revenue increases of $660B.  That's a lot of cuts and a lot of tax increases. Implementing them would be extremely painful, even over a period of years, and that's if our frickin' politicians in Washington will quit their irresponsible partisan war and get to work.

The challenges are huge:
- Mandatory spending programs, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, interest on the national debt, and others) take up about two thirds of the government's spending and it's growing.  Congress must agree on reforms to make Social Security sustainable, rein in costs on Medicare and Medicaid, and  ensure the long-term survivability of the programs.  That means significantly reducing benefits and costs.
- Discretionary spending takes up about a third of the federal spending.  Over half of that goes for defense.  Spending for social programs is where the Republicans are targeting their cuts while increasing spending on defense.  However, if we completely eliminated all discretionary spending (education, roads, Hurricane Sandy assistance, the FAA, CIA, health, and so on) while keeping defense steady, we'd still run a half-trillion dollar deficit.  Which means that defense has to be cut as well.  Significantly.

All of this is a very long-winded (sorry) way of laying out the deficit problem.  So why do I say Obama will do a better job of reducing it than Romney will?  Because Obama has already shown himself to be a pragmatic deal-maker.  In budget talks with Republican leaders in 2011, Obama gave them 90% of what they wanted.  The Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, killed the deal by adamantly refusing to consider any sort of tax increase.  On the contrary, they want to cut taxes further, which really just fuels the deficit fire.  As I noted above, the only way to get the deficit down is through an equal measure of spending cuts and revenue increases.  Obama is ready to do it.  The Republicans won't.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why I'm For Obama, Part 1: Economics

Yes, I support Barack Obama's re-election.  I'm doing so for quite a number of reasons.  Basically, I believe Obama has been an effective president who has done a good job in a really rotten set of circumstances.  This is particularly true given that his rotten set of circumstances were largely created by the Republican party, and the Republicans have continued to fiercely block almost all his efforts to fix them.  Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's approach, in my view, takes George Bush's failures and puts them on steroids.  I believe having Romney as President would result in severe damage the country.

Those are broad statements.  One blog post cannot do justice to them, so I'm going to break down the subjects into several blog posts and focus on one element at a time.  Since most people consider the economy to be the #1 issue in the country today, I'll start with that one.

First and foremost, it seems necessary to remind people that Barack Obama didn't run our economy into the ground.  It was primarily the economic policies of George Bush and the Republican party over a long period of time that did.  They took the position that unfettered private enterprise is the solution to our nation's ills, and that any interference by a government, be it by taxation or regulation, is by definition a bad thing.  In practice during Bush's tenure, this meant lax or nonexistent oversight over the financial markets (among others), with a particularly hands-off attitude for Wall Street's complex financial packages as well as mortgage lending practices nationwide.  The government's failure to monitor those two areas in particular contributed to the economic crash of 2008.  This crash, I have to note, began late in President Bush's term, about seven months or so before Obama was inaugurated.

But it wasn't just Wall Street and the mortgage market that brought down the American economy.  For several decades, we have been dismantling our manufacturing base, using more automation to replace manpower, and shipping jobs of all sorts overseas.  The middle class has seen its real income gradually drop since the 80's.  In hindsight, the recession of the early 2000's should have been a wake-up call.  That one, you may remember, was a cyclical recession (a normal and periodic downturn of the economy), but gave us a very slow "jobless" recovery.  In previous cyclical recessions, the economy quickly bounced back as people were re-hired for their previous jobs.  That time, though, they weren't.  Jobs had been permanently eliminated, or shifted overseas, or employers were using temp workers.  The only ones doing well were those few who were higher on the economic ladder.

I saw this disparity first-hand.  A friend who was an officer in a local bank's wealth-management unit saw that his wealthy clients were doing extremely well.  As an artist, however, I saw that most people were stressed out, unable (or unwilling) to spend money on luxuries like art.  North Carolina lost about 40% of its manufacturing jobs during that decade, many small farms here in the mountains ceased operations (many being turned into gated communities for million-dollar homes), and way too many people with comfortable incomes were laid off and forced into lower-paying jobs.  All of this was part of a long-term trend of growing economic disparity which has disproportionately favored the wealthy.  Even The Economist, that bastion of conservative economic thought from Britain, is concerned about economic disparity and focused a recent edition on the problem, its roots, and potential corrections.

The recession of 2008 was, of course, much worse.  This time it wasn't a cyclical recession, it was brought on by severe structural failures.  These failures could have been prevented had the federal government wanted to exercise its oversight and regulatory responsibilities.  Under President Bush, it didn't.

Republicans have long downplayed the problems with economic disparity in which the wealthy gain an increasing share of the nation's wealth while the middle and lower incomes lose.  They have championed the belief that wealthy people create jobs, therefore we should give the wealthy more tax breaks.  (Remember George H.W. Bush's impassioned plea to lower the capital gains tax?)  Republicans call it "supply-side economics", but it's more accurately called "trickle-down economics", and it just doesn't work.

Our economy is largely based on consumerism.  That means it needs a lot of consumers.  The more consumers you have with more money to spend, the better your economy.  But in trickle-down economics, the money doesn't go to a lot of consumers, it goes to a few wealthy people.  The wealthy few don't put this money back into circulation.  Mitt Romney, for example, put his money into accounts in the Caymans and Switzerland, into financing corporate raids, and investing in stocks and bonds, and very little of it trickled down to others.

If you need more proof that trickle-down economics doesn't work, consider that we now have the greatest economic disparity in our country since the period of the robber barons over a century ago.  If trickle-down economics really worked, we wouldn't be having these tough times right now.

Now consider the track records of our two presidential candidates.  Mitt Romney has a history as a corporate raider, a Gordon Gekko figure.  Romney was adamantly opposed to the government assistance that was necessary for GM and Chrysler to get the financing needed to survive reorganization.   He was perfectly willing to let Chrysler and GM go completely out of business and take three million jobs with them.  But Obama wasn't.  He went ahead with the financial assistance plan (actually begun under the Bush administration) which gave the two corporations the resources needed to make it through bankruptcy proceedings and come out the other side.  Just within the past few days, Chrysler reported a profit of $383M for the recent quarter and GM reported a profit of $1.83B.  That wouldn't have happened under a Romney administration.

Romney has been attacking Obama on the jobs front, saying that there are fewer jobs now than when he assumed office.  This attack fails to recognize that a near-depression was underway when Obama took office and that jobs were already in free fall.  Obama's policies stopped the job losses and private sector jobs have actually been growing now for three years.

Furthermore, consider that Romney promises to slash government spending.  That means that he is going to slash government jobs as well, a fact that he never mentions.  These job losses will drive up the unemployment rate, another fact he doesn't mention.  But in fact, he would only be doing what Obama has already done.  There are about 1 million fewer federal workers now than there were four years ago.  Had the Obama administration not cut those jobs, the unemployment rate would be just over 7%, not bad for a post-recession period.  So Romney is attacking Obama for reducing the federal workforce and driving up unemployment, something Romney himself promises to do.  This, to me, is dishonest.

So the choice comes down to this: do you want Gordon Gekko as your President?  Or do you want a pragmatic leader who is willing to take risks to save jobs and grow the economy?  The choice is pretty clear to me.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Faces of Afghanistan" Exhibit at UNC Asheville

The exhibition of my drawings and pastels from Afghanistan is now open at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, in the S. Tucker Cooke Gallery in Owen Hall.  For the past three weeks, I've been busting my tail to get everything ready.  I ordered the frames and glass from the Framer's Chop Shop, then matted and framed all 47 works.  While that was going on, John Le from WLOS-TV came out and did the news clip that I linked to in my last post.  UNCA turned their publicity team loose and their press release was picked up by several papers in North and South Carolina.  I did an interview with the Asheville Citizen-Times as well; their article turned out really nice.  (In the hard-copy edition, the article was right underneath a child porn arrest and right before the obituaries.  Nothing like keeping everything in perspective.)  Meanwhile, Janis took over the management of the opening reception: she decided what to do for drinks, munchies, decorations, and so on.

On Thursday, everything kicked into high gear.  I went in and hung the show.  One of the student assistants, Amber, helped considerably with the layout and hanging details.  Photographers from two newspapers (Mountain XPress and Citizen-Times) arrived at the same time to shoot images to accompany articles ... aaawwwwkward ... On Friday, Robert Tynes (one of the painting instructors) and I arranged the lighting, then I set up the reception tables and slapped the labels next to the artworks.  Janis and I came in about an hour before opening time - she set out the food and drinks while I made last-minute adjustments.  We opened the doors about 15 minutes before the official time because, well, people were there.

After all that work, the reception was actually fun.  Lots of old friends showed up: artists, fellow students from UNCA, a friend that I've known for 40 years, writers, teachers, and neighbors.  Current UNCA students, collectors, and random walk-ins off the street came as well.  During an opening reception, the exhibiting artists spend all their time talking to people, and I certainly did that.  There were even a few sales.  And, in the mix, I was offered another show in February.  All in all, a success.

So what do I think and feel about this?  Well, anytime an artist can get work up on somebody else's wall, it's a good thing.  This is a great gallery and I'm very proud and happy to exhibit here.  And I'm quite proud of the way the show looks.  The framing turned out very well (thanks to Janis, who chose the frame styles and mat colors).  I always have a lot of anxious questions before a show: will there be enough works to fill the walls, how will they look, what will people think, and so on.  But all turned out well.  So I'm a happy camper.

Now I'm trying to catch up on all the gazillion and one things that didn't get done over the past couple of weeks.  This blog post, for example.  I need to get to work on employment prospects.  I have a new iPhone and I can barely make and receive phone calls on, so I need to learn its capabilities.  Both cars need washing and waxing before winter sets in.  I'm going to put together a show proposal and see about getting "Faces" exhibited in a few more places.  I want to set up a studio again.  We've got a wedding to go to soon.  My dogs are sitting here looking at me, telling me it's time to get off the computer and play with them.

So: it's been nice talking with you, but the dogs are calling!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

On Being A Media Whore

"Media whore" is what we labelled a buddy of mine in Afghanistan who inadvertently wound up as the focus of a news video clip.  He'd taken the reporters out to the field so they could film a segment on Afghan agriculture; instead, the report showed a lot of him and very little agriculture.  So, naturally, we accused him of pandering to the media in order to get his face on TV.  That was completely wrong, of course, which made harassing him with it so much fun.

In the past week, I've had two video segments about me posted onto YouTube.  In both cases, I am not entirely innocent - I had to do some coordination with the news teams to get the clips done.  So, yes, I'm a media whore!

The first segment was shot in Kabul by the Embassy's public affairs section.  I wrote about it in an earlier blog post.  This report (done by an American reporter and an Afghan videographer) was a human-interest story done to show an Embassy official (me) doing things not normally expected of a government official.  We did it in a small park over in the ISAF compound, across from GEN Allen's headquarters.  The reporter's questions are not heard; rather, you just see me drawing and hear me talking about the whole process.  It was a fun project and you can see the video here:

The Embassy offered the video to my local TV station, WLOS.  They loved it, but decided to send a reporter out to shoot their own segment.  So yesterday, the reporter, John Le, and cameraman Todd, came out to my house.  I am matting and framing the artworks for the show, and they wanted to get some images of the process.  So I matted and framed, and they shot video and asked questions, and then put together a news clip that ran last night.  It turned out pretty well.  Here's the link to the YouTube clip:

I normally do not like being the focus of attention and having cameras and microphones in my face.  I'm more of a behind-the-scenes guy.  But these two clips were fun to do.  Both the Embassy and the WLOS teams were very professional and enjoyable to work with.  I would do it again, just not anytime soon.  Being a media whore is not my cup of tea!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Art Show Preps

So how much "time off" did I get after coming home?  Not even a day.  Right off the bat, I was back in the groove: walking the dogs, mowing the lawn, and making the run to the post office, dump, and grocery store.  Which was pretty cool.  I'm not one to sit around expecting to be pampered, and Janis is not one to let me get away with it.  "Would you like a grilled ham and cheese sandwich?  You would?  Well, get up and make it, then!"  That's how things roll around our house.

I have a big project underway.  The University of North Carolina at Asheville is going to exhibit a selection of my drawings and pastels from Afghanistan.  The opening will be on Friday, Oct 26, with a reception from 6 - 8 pm.  That's only three weeks from the time I got home until the time the show opens.  There's a lot to do: select which drawings to show, order the mats and frames, cut the mats and frame the works, coordinate with the school's public affairs, arrange for posters, coordinate the reception, prepare the space, hang the show ... you get the picture.

The first task was to decide which artworks to include.  I wound up with a stack of 47 drawings and pastels.  All are Afghan figures, the vast majority of which are portrait sketches.  For this exhibit, I am not including the sketches of Americans or landscape images with MRAPs or other such drawings.  All the drawings are pretty small, with none larger than about 10"x12" unframed.  The gallery is pretty good-sized, so it needs a lot of works to fill it up.  Once the pieces were selected, the next step was to figure out the frames.  We're using some pretty nice frames - with so many artworks, the temptation is to go cheapo, but we decided to do them up properly.  We had a local frame shop (Frugal Framer) build the frames and cut the glass, and I picked them up today.  They look great.  Tomorrow, I'll start to cut the mats and put everything together.

A few days ago, I met with the art department staff at UNC Asheville to get some information, swap ideas, and get the ball rolling.  Today, I met with the public affairs guy at the school.  He's going to write up an article for publication.  I've sent out notifications electronically already and have more to go.  Next week, Janis and I will work on the stuff for the reception.  I'll hang the show on Thursday and set up the reception on Friday.

In the meantime, I re-photographed all the drawings from Afghanistan.  All of them, including the ones not included in this particular exhibit.  All the photos that I shot previously were quick point & shoots, with very imperfect lighting, exposure, and so on.  This time I took my time and photographed them as carefully as possible.  A number of people have talked to me about putting these drawings together in a book, and that is something I'll look into once the reception is behind me.  Oh, and I need to revamp my web site.  Again.

So that's what I've been doing for the past week.  Got lots more to do over the next week and a half.  But dang, it's good to be home!

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Mission Complete

My Afghanistan deployment is now over.  I'm back at home with Janis and the dogs, getting settled into  normal life again, and letting my body clock get readjusted.

I spent a week in Kabul to out-process.  I'd been told that it took three or four days to do the scavenger hunt of finding offices and getting things checked off.  The Embassy works 5-day weeks (unlike the field), so add in a couple of non-working weekend days, plus an extra day or so to account for weather delays or unexpected events.  So I arranged for a week.  As it turned out, there were no delays and for field people like me, most of the items on the scavenger-hunt checklist were not applicable.  In about two hours on the first day, I'd done 90% of what needed to be done.  It felt great to turn in my body armor, satellite phone, a BlackBerry that never worked properly, and a few other items.  That left six days to do ... well, a lot of nothing.  I set up some meetings to fill people in on Kandahar issues, more to have something semi-productive to do than anything else.  Otherwise, I hit the gym, visited with friends, and caught up on some reading.

Our Public Affairs people got wind of the fact that I'm an artist and have been drawing Afghans during my deployment.  Sensing a potential PR good-news human-interest story, they arranged to do a video interview with me.  This turned out to be a lot of fun.  We talked on-camera about who I was, what I'd been doing, the drawings, the Afghan reaction to them, and so on.  Then we corralled a young female British soldier nearby into sitting for me while I sketched her.  It was a bit unnerving to have the unblinking all-seeing eye of the video camera looking over my shoulder while I drew.  Knowing how often drawings are complete failures, I was nervous, but we got lucky and it turned out pretty well.  I gave the young lady the drawing when done and she seemed pretty pleased with it.  The next day, I saw a rough early cut of a portion of the interview.  They're still working on it and it will be posted on YouTube when done.  I will post the link here when it's available.

Kabul weather was unbelievably perfect during my week there.  It was cool in the mornings and evenings, meaning long-sleeve or even light jacket temperatures, and perfectly warm (mid-70's) during the day.  But not all was perfect.  About the midpoint of my stay, I ate something that just did not want to go away.  It sat in my stomach for at least three or four days, even into the trip home.  I finally had to go visit the doc, since I did not want to spend 24 hours trapped in airports and airplanes while feeling queasy.  They gave me some antacids and that helped.  Turned out that quite a few people at the Embassy suffered the same thing.  The DFACs strike again!

Finally, though, everything was done.  I'd turned in everything that needed to be turned in, spoken to all who needed to be spoken to, and it was time to go.  A driver took us from the Embassy to the Kabul airport.  This trip was a bit tense as there was a bombing targeted at an Embassy vehicle on that route a couple of weeks earlier, but this trip went off without a hitch.  Getting through the check-in and screening process was the usual pain.  We loaded up into a Safi Airlines Airbus that clunked and banged during taxiing like an ancient Chevy panel truck.  Not very confidence-inspiring.  The flight to Dubai was uneventful, though.  After more screening at the Dubai airport, I found my gate and met up with a couple of my co-workers from Kandahar who were going out on leave.

At midnight, we left Dubai for the 14-hour flight to Dulles.  I normally can't sleep worth squat on planes and this trip was no different.  Nothing like dozing off and on in 10 or 15-minute stretches, waking up with a terrible crick in your neck, looking at your watch, and realizing you've still got eight hours of this to go.  Ugh.

Dulles immigration wasn't as bad as it normally is.  We were maybe the first flight of the day to hit the passport control section, so we were processed pretty quickly.  United misplaced my checked bag, but found it after about 15 minutes, and I cleared customs and re-checked it for home.  Then I cleaned up as best I could, changed shirts, and headed downtown to the State Department.  As always, I am SO GLAD that I don't live in DC anymore and don't have to put up with that traffic every day.  Unbelievable.

Checkout from the State Department went well and quickly.  In less than 3 hours, I'd filled out forms, completed a required stress interview with a shrink, collected a variety of helpful information sheets that will never be read, turned in my badge and CAC card, and out the door.  No longer a State Department guy.  Unemployed.  Digging it.

I had some free time, so I did one of my favorite things: went to the National Gallery of Art to get inspired.  And walked into a showing of George Bellows' paintings.  You know Bellows' work if you don't know the name: he did the paintings of the turn-of-the-century boxers pounding the crap out of each other.  I was completely blown away, much more than I would have expected.  I've seen his work in ones and twos before, but seeing so many all together, and how they related, how how superbly painted they were, just knocked me out.  He is not an Impressionist, but he has their loose brushwork that suggests far more than it defines, while making you believe you're seeing more than is really there. Fabulous work.  If you're in DC, go see this show.  I would have bought the catalog, but it weighed a ton and I was already carrying a full backpack, so decided against it.  I'll probably order it, though, so the postal system will get to carry it rather than me.

And then it was time to head back out to Dulles.  The trip out there was uneventful.  Check-in was a pain (always at Dulles) but not as bad as it has been.  United loaded us into a tiny little jet for the trip to Charlotte.  I had a window seat and spent the whole time looking out the window at MY COUNTRY. It was green, with farms and towns and roads busy with trucks and cars.  The blue sky merged with haze on the distant horizon and then merged into the blue-green of the hills and rivers.  Marvelous!

As always, my flight arrived at one end of the Charlotte airport, while my next flight departed at the far other end.  But it was cool to stroll through the busy terminal and people-watch normal Americans in their natural environment.  No body armor, no M4's, no checkpoints with bored Afghan soldiers.  Nope, just regular old Americans, young and old, dressed-up and sloppy, talking on cell phones, checking departure schedules, or wandering around aimlessly.  It felt great to be one of them again.

And finally, the short hop to Asheville.  I sat next to a very interesting lady and we had a great discussion about my job, her job, art, Asheville, travel, and a host of other things.  Then we landed.  I gathered up my backpack and headed out the door.  As usual, Janis was waiting over in the check-in area with Soozzee and Indy.  These two dogs have done this so many times, they knew what to expect.  They spotted me and came running.  Followed by Janis.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Kabul, Outbound

My checkout at KAF went pretty well.  I had been told to spend 3-5 days there.  Turned out that my official duties consisted of turning in a badge and telling the IT guys to turn off two email accounts.  The rest of the time, I was packing up a couple of boxes to send home, deciding which shirts to throw away now and which to keep for a few more days, and meeting with old friends in the office or for lunch or dinner or just to shoot the breeze.  Contrary to popular opinion, there are a lot of really cool people out here who are working their asses off, trying to make a difference.  

Last night, for example, I met with Ahmed and Patrick, two guys that went through training with me a year ago.  One has extended for a year, the other for six months.  One is a doctor with an amazing breadth of experience in bottom-of-the-ladder countries like Libya.  The other is an inveterate prankster who is nevertheless a consummate professional.  Our discussion started with "whatcha been doin'? and wound up going over the recent activities in Libya, segued into an incredibly well-informed and in-depth discussion of Egypt (well-informed on their part, complete ignorance on mine), compared both countries to what we're seeing in Afghanistan, wandered over the significant differences in cultures between a variety of seemingly-related countries, and wound up with "is there any ice cream left?"  It was great to have the opportunity to work with people like that: smart, witty, dedicated, and with experience that comes from being out in the international community.

This morning was The Day, though.  Up early, breakfast, finish packing my bags, and head out to meet up with the transportation to the flight line.  There was a big crowd heading to the State Department flight line and then on to various places.  I got to see a bunch of other friends out there and say goodbye to them.  My flight was called early and we were off.  Our route took us up over the Hindu Kush, which is the name for the steep mountainous region over central Afghanistan.  A spectacular area, almost uninhabited except for pockets here and there.

Before long, we were coming in over Kabul and heading for the airport.  Kabul is a huge city, mostly jam-packed into a too-small area.  Which basically describes most cities such as New York or New Delhi, but here many of the buildings are made of mud brick.

We were met by a vehicle from the Embassy and driven into town.  I am forever grateful that I was not stationed here in Kabul and did not have to drive on these streets.  Drivers here make Italians look prim and proper.  Roundabouts are the worst: you just dive in and cut off anybody who might get in your way.  In the short drive from the airport, we came across two fender-benders, both parked in the middle of the road and (in a sign of the typical Kabul road chaos) not slowing traffic down one bit.

I quickly settled into my room at the Embassy and discovered that one of my two roommates was also one of my fellow students during training a year ago.  I walked out into the lounge and saw four more.  Over at dinner, I ran into somebody I knew in Iraq.  It's like old-home week, meeting with my peeps.

The checkout process probably won't be too arduous, but it looks like I'll have to deal with typical bureaucratic stupidity at times.  For example, one guy today didn't want to sign my sheet because my record showed that a set of travel orders was still open.  Well, since they're for the trip I'm still on, I'm not too surprised about that.  The lightbulb finally went on in his head (it was a 25-watt bulb) and he signed off.  One item down. 

So the journey continues.  Tomorrow will be a big push.  I've got plenty of time, but I want to do as much as possible as early as possible so I can take care of any issues (like today's) before they become Problems.

And I'm looking forward to seeing some more old friends.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Out of Maiwand

As the title to this post says, I am out of Maiwand.  Now I'm at Kandahar Air Field, or KAF, for a few days.  I'm overdue for a post here because things have been a bit busy.

In my last post, I wrote about putting together a sort of pass-down book on the district.  I finished up what could be done with the book on Wednesday and sent it out to all those who might need it.  The final version was a whopping 67 pages long.  It's written so that my teammates, both military and civilian, can continue to add to it, change it, re-arrange it, and do whatever needs to be done to keep it updated.  I felt good about the project - it was the kind of thing I wish had been available when I first got there.  Finally, I felt like I'd done something to contribute to the effort.

Another thing that I said in the post was that the Afghan security forces were very capable and could do a good job if the government gives them the resources they need.  The day before I left Maiwand, something occurred that illustrates this.  A convoy was moving from one of our bases in the district to another.  All the drivers and the private security team were Afghans.  Just outside the first base, they were ambushed by the Taliban, who shot up the trucks and set a number of them on fire.  The drivers and security forces ran off.  Some Afghan police responded to the call and swooped in.  One of them ran up to an MRAP that had a burning front tire.  While under fire, he jumped in, started it up, and drove it all the way to our base (several miles) to keep it out of Taliban hands.  That, my friends, took guts.  I walked up to the vehicle the next morning and saw the shredded tire, smashed window, and ping marks from all the bullets.  Who says the Afghans aren't brave?

But regardless of Afghan progress, my time in Maiwand was up.  On Thursday morning, I packed up the last bit of my gear and trundled it over to the helo landing zone.  The State Department's trusty old ex-Marine CH-46 helo settled in amid a huge cloud of dust.  My teammate Eric, who'd been at KAF for a couple of days, hopped off.  We shook hands and did the high-5 duty turnover under all the propwash, and then I climbed onboard and belted in.  We lifted off and circled east over the District Center.  I looked out the tailgate and watched Maiwand gradually disappear in the distance.  Another chapter closed.

Here at KAF, I quickly settled into the temporary quarters.  In the spirt of coming full circle, I'm right back in the very same temporary rack as when I first arrived here last October.  I've been in meetings, written reports, and helped out briefers over the past couple of days, trying to make sure that the Powers That Be have an accurate understanding of Maiwand's unique situation.  Next step is getting my own stuff squared away: packing up my gorilla box, throwing some stuff out, and turning off a couple of email accounts.  I've got some friends here that I need to see, so some dinners at the DFAC or coffee at the Green Bean will be in order.

A few days more and Kandahar will be in my rear-view mirror.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thoughts on the Afghan Surge

As I'm wrapping up my time here in Maiwand, I've been putting together what is essentially a pass-down book.  It contains a lot of stuff that people who work in the district, or whose work affects the district, need to know.  Things like a list of all the public schools, information on who's in the shuras, writeups on the key power players, data on community councils, project reports, all kinds of things.  Some of it's narrative, some tables, some lists, and a few pictures.  Not exactly the Great American Novel, but if you're interested in Maiwand, it's a good thing to have around for reference.

One of the areas that I've really learned a lot about while doing this project is the recent history of the district.  By "recent", I mean since the establishment of the communist regime back in the 1970's, through the Soviet invasion, to the civil war years, then the Taliban rule, and finally the "modern" period since 2001.  The elders of this district have lived through all of this.  Some of them were on opposite sides at various times.  Some of them were literally shooting at each other on occasion and will joke about it now.  "That was you in that field?  I was in the back of the pickup shooting at you!" "Really?  Well, you still can't aim your AK worth a hoot!"

After the 2001 invasion, this place got very little attention.  There were no US/NATO forces stationed out here for years.  The government was really corrupt and the Taliban was able to re-group.  Mullah Omar's original madrassa is about 20 miles down the road, so this area is the Taliban's home turf, and they took advantage of it.  By 2007 they had pretty much free rein here.  NATO forces (under Canadian leadership) came out on disruption operations, but they didn't have enough manpower to stay for any length of time, beyond manning checkpoints on the highway.

That began to change in 2008 when the 2-2 Infantry arrived.  They started building two bases, one at Sakari Karez (now closing) and the other here.  It looks like force levels stayed about the same through 2009 before sufficient forces arrived, through the surge, to begin to make a difference.  In early 2010, just 2 1/2 years ago, there was still no functioning government.  The District Governor and the shura members who were still active (and alive) all lived in Kandahar City.  The district office buildings were unusable.  ISAF controlled the district center, main highway, and not much else.  But the increase in ISAF (primarily US) presence allowed us to start changing things.  The governor and shura members started coming back.  Buildings were fixed up and occupied.  A model farm was built.  Kids went back to school.  The Afghan police and army units became more professional and effective.

I gripe about the slow pace of progress here, but when I look back on how this place was just a couple of years ago, it's a world of difference.  Our governor not only comes to work every day, but he brought his family to live here.  Our shuras are often lively and contentious affairs.  People come to the district center from all over the district.  The bazaar is lively and people can travel on the road with a reasonable expectation of getting where they want.  There are about 400 boys in the main school here on any given day and we're about to open up the first classes for girls in many years.

That is not to say that all is peaches and cream.  IED's are a daily occurrence around the district.  There is a lot of corruption in government.  This district grows more poppy than any other district in Kandahar Province because they can't really grow anything else.  As a result, the narcotics trafficking rings are very strong and tied in with the Taliban.  People like me can't go out in town.

But if you want to know if the surge made a difference, I can say yes, it did.  I see the difference every day.

Whether it will last is a different question.  Our forces are drawing down.  The Afghan security forces are pretty good and will fight like hell if the Afghan government gives them the support and supplies they need.  That's not a given.  The corruption level will have to drop to Afghan-normal levels in order to be at least acceptable to the natives.  And I don't think the outlying areas will come under government control for many years.

What my predecessors in the military, civilian, and Afghan worlds have built here in just a few years is quite amazing.  It still has a long way to go, and it's very fragile.  But the Afghan people have some hope for an alternative to the violent and repressive Taliban regime.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dust Storms

We just had an unbelievable weather pattern today.  It started out clear, with a few high clouds.  Around noon it clouded up.  Then at about 1 pm, a wall of dust rolled in.  "Rolled" is a good word for it: it advanced pretty fast, absolutely silent, no wind, just a wall of dust coming across the desert towards us.  It even had a dust devil in front that passed directly over me.  I can't show most of those pictures because they show some key features of our base, but here's one that looks out over the town of Hutal.

When the dust hit, the wind kicked up and then the rain exploded.  It didn't last long, but it was intense. Then it was gone, the skies cleared up completely, and it turned into a beautiful afternoon.  The rain made the place smell like a fishing pier, though ... don't know how that happened.

And then at 6 pm, here came a second wall of dust.  This was another fast-moving, silent, ominous storm that was sweeping across the desert.  Because of the late-afternoon light, it was bright orange.  This storm didn't bring any rain, just choking dust, and most of us covered our faces with scarves, handkerchiefs, or whatever was available.

The dust is still here and the wind is blowing.  I'm staying put, right here in my room.

Friday, September 07, 2012

A Couple of Sketches

Haji Abdul Rahim
Graphite on paper, 12"x9" 

Haji Soda Khan
Graphite on paper, 12"x9"

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Getting Short

Yes, I'm starting to get short.  In two weeks, I'll begin to work my way back from the Wild West of Kandahar, through KAF and Kabul, to home.  My year here is going to come to a close before long.

In the meantime, there's still plenty to do.  One of the things that has kept me busy lately is our move.  Somebody On High decided that the location of our CHUs on this little base was too dangerous and we had to move.  Never mind that there has never been any kind of a threat to them, and they are well out of the way, and the only "threat" would come if the base was attacked with heavy artillery or mortars and they scored a very lucky hit.  And none of the insurgents in this area have mortars.  Didn't matter: the order came down, so we had to move.  Immediately.  So we worked with the military unit that controls this base and drew up a plan.  This plan lasted about 24 hours before something was discovered that made it impossible.  Plan B lasted a full week, until the day before we were scheduled to move.  So we went with Plan C, which we made up as we went along, and we are now in our new home.  Lugging our junk from old to new homes was the easy part.  The hard part was moving our communications equipment and computers.  Dismantling the old network took two hours; building a new network (running cables, aligning the satellite dish, hooking everything up, and testing) took another seven.  But it worked and we were up and running again about nine hours after starting.  Our IT guys are fabulous.

I've seen some changes in Maiwand since arriving in April.  A few of the strategically-located villages have come into the Afghan government sphere of influence.  We've done some things that I think could have an impact over the longer term.  Unfortunately, in the past few months there has been a big increase in "green on blue" incidents across Afghanistan and particularly in the south.  "Green on blue" refers to attacks by Afghan security forces on US forces.  The Taliban is always quick to claim credit for them, but that's not really true.  A minority of these incidents are done by Taliban infiltrators, or by security forces who later align themselves with the Taliban.  More are done by Afghans who have a personal issue at stake: a perceived insult or whatever.  Some are copycat incidents, like we often see in the US.

Whatever the case, we are taking these green-on-blue incidents very seriously.  Our security awareness is way up over where it was when I arrived at this little base.  The good thing is that our Afghan partners are also very aware, and very concerned, over it as well.  They should be: in reality, the senior Afghan leaders here are more at risk than Americans are.  So, without giving away any details, I'll just say that I feel much better about our security posture now than I did even two months ago.

Meanwhile, business in the Afghan world is just now getting back to normal following Ramadan and the Eid celebration immediately after.  Yes, it ended over a week ago, but just like the post-Christmas period in the US, it takes a while to get going.  Everybody is slowly getting back up to speed again, starting to address issues that have been in limbo for a few weeks, but not really anxious to do much.

One of our female officers is the leader of a Female Engagement Team, or FET.  Recently, they were with a patrol in a village, when a happy bearded elder stopped them.  He told them that his son, standing next to him, had just gotten married, and they should go see the women inside.  The patrol quickly established a security perimeter and the FET went into the home.  Inside, they found about 50 women dressed to the nines, all made up, and loaded with jewelry.  They were surprised to see our female soldiers but made them welcome.  Our FET team talked with a few of them, including the mother of the bride, said their congratulations, and left them to their party.  The bride, who remained covered, huddled in a fetal position in the corner, never moved and never spoke.  She and her new husband would go to his family's house in a day or two, where she would become, essentially, his property.  The groom, by the way, was 15 years old.  The bride?  Ten.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Few Sketches

Here are a few sketches from the past few days ...

Before the Patrol
Graphite on paper, 9"x12" 

Abdul M.
Graphite on paper, 7"x5" 

Graphite on paper, 7"x5"

Friday, August 24, 2012

Eid Makes for a Quiet Week

The Muslim world finished up Ramadan just as I returned from leave.  The Eid celebration that followed it was supposed to last three days.  Yeah.  Just like we would have in the US, Afghans managed to stretch it out over a whole week.  Over at the District Center, there were a couple of parties with bands and food and lots of chai and good times.  All offices were closed, meetings cancelled, and lots of people went to wherever "home" was.  As a result, I was able to play catchup without falling further behind.  A pretty quiet week.

I hit the gym the first morning back.  I weighed in, expecting to have gained a few pounds during R&R, but found I hadn't gained an ounce.  Cool!  But I've been exercising every day anyway, taking it easy at first and then upping the strain.  Part of the reason is to try to work off a few more pounds before this tour is over.  Another part is that I've still been waking up at ridiculous hours in the morning, so what else is there to do?  I was in the gym this morning and one soldier was putting all the rest of us to shame.  He was on the leg press and kept adding more and more weights until, finally, he was pushing 880 pounds.  I couldn't believe it.  There I was, sweating away with my measly squats (no extra weights), and he's pushing five of me around.

This week, I learned that there's a Canadian combat artist in southern Afghanistan.  Richard Johnson is on his fourth trip in-country.  His articles and drawings are being published in the National Post newspaper based in Ontario.  He was at KAF at the same time I was, although I didn't know it.  His drawings and writeup are really good and I highly recommend taking a look.

Two bits of news today really sucked.  One was that former Ambassador Ryan Crocker was arrested on a DUI hit-and-run last week.  Crocker has done an amazing job for the US as Ambassador to Pakistan, then Iraq, and then Afghanistan.  Any one of those would have required a superhuman effort from a normal guy, and the fact that he did all three of them, and so well, is unbelievably impressive.  He left Afghanistan early due to some unspecified, but serious, health issues.  This DUI is not excusable, but it pales in significance to what he has done for this country.

The other bit of bad news is the retired SEAL who's publishing a memoir of the Bin Laden raid.  That's just plain wrong.  All of us on government service sign an agreement that we will submit any manuscripts that might contain classified information for a security review.  That's a normal requirement that's been around for many decades.  I signed the agreement.  This guy, though, didn't live up to his obligation.  Especially for somebody involved in the actions of SEAL Team 6 in general and the Bin Laden raid in particular, there is a lot of highly classified information involved and, no matter how careful he is, he's probably going to spill some of it. If he does, I think he should be brought back on active duty and court-martialled.  My message to him and everybody else on active duty (military and civilian): follow your obligations and don't put your teammates and other soldiers in danger.

To cap it off, this morning Fox News, that bastion of right-wing military adventurism, outed the guy, publishing his name for all the world to know.  Now why in the hell did they do that?  They just endangered him, his family, his friends, and his teammates, all to sell newspapers or TV spots.  Now, granted, the ex-SEAL team guy endangered himself by writing the book in the first place, but he used a pseudonym for himself and his buddies.  Now his cover is blown and it won't take much investigative work to find the real identities of some of the rest.  Way to go, Fox News: where money comes before country.

Had the name been published by MSNBC or the New York Times, I bet there would have been a huge outcry from the right.  So far, I haven't heard anything.  I'm waiting.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Back In Maiwand Again

Hutal, Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

I arrived back in Maiwand this morning.  It was a long trip.  I left Asheville on Monday evening.  The flight was delayed a bit by weather, but I still got to Atlanta in plenty of time to catch the flight to Dubai.  Some of my friends have recently had some bad experiences with United (lost bags, cancelled flights, and don't-give-a-hoot crews and representatives) but Delta has been pretty good for me.  Our flight was packed with lots of US civilians obviously heading to Afghanistan.  How did I know?  They had this certain look to them, of men who had done hard things in difficult situations for long periods of time; calm, competent, no-bullshit carriage.  That, and the military-issue backpacks.

The 14-hour flight was as long as it sounds, but surprisingly, I was able to get some sleep.  Waking up at the 6-hour mark and realizing that you still have 8 hours to go is not much fun.  Dubai passport control is efficient and I was soon at my hotel.  Had a long soak in the tub, followed by a great dinner on their terrace (burger and draft beer), and in the rack for the night.  My body clock was so confused.

The next day, it was on to Kabul.  The seats on this plane were even smaller than Delta's and every single one was taken.  In other words, sardine city.  After Dubai's modern airport, Kabul's was really ramshackle.  But the passport control was quick and efficient, and I didn't have any checked bags, so I was through in no time.  After getting to the Embassy, I got settled in my room and started taking care of business.  Good thing I did, too, since they'd lost my flight request for the next day to Kandahar.  I ran into several old friends while wandering around the compounds, which was cool.  The Embassy is a massive construction project right now.  Eight hundred million of your tax dollars are building a huge new compound, and as a result, getting from one office to another is a challenge.  Hell, even finding the office is a challenge.  Is all this necessary?  A lot of us think not.  It is too much like the monstrous embassy in Baghdad that is now way under-utilized.

The next day, I flew down to Kandahar and checked in with the offices that we work with on a daily basis.  I got caught up on news and gossip and checked my three email accounts.  When you have 1400 emails in the queue, the "delete" button is your friend!  Sleeping at night was still difficult: I'd hit the rack around 9:30, wake up later feeling like I'd been down forever, look at the clock, and it would be 12:45 in the morning.  Ugh!  I had some over-the-counter sleep aids that really helped although they left me a bit groggy first thing in the morning.

Today was the last leg.  I was the sole passenger in an ancient Huey helicopter heading from KAF to Maiwand.  I rode sitting sideways, looking out the great gaping hole where a door would be if a door had been installed.  It was better than any amusement park ride.  We thup-thup-thupped our way across the desert and swooped down on Hutal (top picture).  A cloud of dust, a final bump, and I was back at my little base.  It's so small that I was almost back to my hooch before the bird lifted off.

I've spent the rest of today getting caught up on the happenings here.  There have been some personnel changes, some politicking over at the District Center, and other things that I needed to know about.  Things haven't really changed, just more of the same.  It's back to the grind.

Oh, and lunch today?  MRE's.  Yes!  Looks like I'm going to be losing all those pounds that I gained while on leave!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Some Assembly Required

That could be the tag line for much of this R&R at home.  A variety of small-bore projects that always seemed to require a bit more work than they initially appeared.  There was some catch-up paperwork that took a week to get done.  The bank of juniper plants behind the house had about a gazillion weeds in it, most of which didn't show up until I was face-down in the bank.  Mowing the lawn led to pulling more weeds and trimming some trees.

Here's an example.  Before I came home, I ordered a new stereo unit for the truck that added the capability to play my iPod, as well as bluetooth for a hands-free capability with the phone.  Putting the new unit in wasn't actually that hard - it took me about twice as long as the directions estimated just because I double-checked everything, but it went right in.  Cool.  But then I realized that my speakers had all the frequency response of a mailbox.  Another order to Crutchfield and a few days later a new set of speakers showed up.  It had two to replace the ones in the front doors and two to replace the ones in the dash.  Should be an easy plug-in, right?  No.  The door speakers weren't a straight replacement.  The wires had one color-code coming off the stereo unit and a completely different one at the speakers. There were two additional pieces of electronics that needed locations where they were accessible for adjustments but wouldn't get kicked or mashed or whatever.  When I went to drill the holes for the screws, the battery for the drill was dead.  When I recharged the battery, I found out it was really dead. The wires included to hook up the door speakers were about 12" too short, requiring a trip to Radio Shack for a new roll.  When I got home, I found I'd bought a size way too small, so it was back to Radio Shack again.  The new speakers for the dash were completely different from the existing ones, so I had to figure out a way to install them without doing permanent damage to the truck.  But eventually, after many hours of work and cussing, it all came together.  The new speakers sound great, the new unit will play my iPod, and the bluetooth works well.

Not everything about this trip was work.  We went to an Asheville Tourists minor-league baseball game with our neighbors, then out to dinner at a great Mexican restaurant.  Friday night, we went downtown to check out a new restaurant and ran into some friends of ours who were also going to the restaurant.  That's one of the things I love about a small city like Asheville: you tend to run into friends everywhere you go.  We watched a lot of the Olympics, which was cool, especially since I hadn't been able to watch any TV for the past three months in Maiwand.  One thing I did not miss: political ads.  I kept the remote handy and immediately changed channels every time a political ad came on.

I also started talking with people about employment and related opportunities after Afghanistan.  There are a few interesting possibilities out there that would make use of my background and skills.  In a perfect world, I'd be able to use those skills while working (or at least being based) here at home, where I could set up an art studio again and resume making artworks that mean something to me.  I'm available after early October - anybody got any ideas?

But vacation is now over.  I'm sitting in the Asheville airport, waiting on the flight to take me to Atlanta and then to Dubai.  This will be my final stint in Afghanistan.  I'll get back to Maiwand, see what's happened while I was home drinking beer, pick up where I left off on my projects, and very soon start wrapping them up.  I'll out-process from the State Department and come home in early October.  No more deployments for this boy.  Trips, yes; deployments, no.  Time for me to spend time with my wife, my dogs, and my friends.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Back Home Again

Traveling across eight and a half timezones really messes with your body.  Particularly when you do it in one swell foop, it's like throwing a monkey wrench into your inner body clock.  So at 2:30 a.m., I was lying in bed, wondering whether to lie there and pretend to sleep, or just go ahead and get up and find something productive to do.  I compromised: I lay there a half hour listening to my dog snore, then got up and made a cuppa joe to get my day started.

The trip back was pretty uneventful.  I flew from Kandahar to Dubai, then took a cab over to Terminal 1 and waited for the Delta desk to open.  People-watching in the Dubai airport is quite interesting, as folks from all over the world are passing through: Chinese stewardesses in long slinky dresses, Arabic men in their white thawbs and kheffiyas, Indian women wearing the traditional sari, Europeans in business suits, Americans in shorts and T-shirts, and all manner in between.  Eventually the desk opened, I got checked in, and headed off to the passport line.  Where I was stopped.  I'd only been in-country for two hours and apparently my entry into the country had not made it through the system yet. But it got straightened out after a bit of a wait, and off I went to wait on my plane to board.

At the gate, I wound up talking with a very interesting man.  He's a naturalized American from Afghanistan who is now working in the country.  There are a lot of people like that in both government service and with the contractors.  This man's father had just died the day before and he was on his way home.  He told me about his father's accomplishments, and then the topic drifted to our mission, how it was proceeding, and what the various possible outcomes were.  He had a lot of insight and, really, he just needed to talk.  I barely said a word, just listened.

But then it was time for me to get on the plane.  We loaded up and left on schedule for the long 14-hour flight.  It always amazes me that you can stuff that many people into a long metal tube, with all their junk, get it in the air, and land it halfway around the world 14 hours later.  It's mind-boggling, really.  I watched a movie and a couple of TV shows and actually managed to get a few short snatches of sleep here and there.

We landed in Atlanta early in the morning and went through the immigration lines.  Atlanta is far and away better than Dulles.  It's more modern and better arranged, but the biggest difference is the people. Even at 5:30 in the morning, they were cheerful, efficient, and friendly.  I don't think I've ever seen anybody at Dulles be cheerful or friendly.  Efficient, yes, but definitely not cheerful or friendly.  Never.

And one of the best things is hearing the immigration agent tell you "welcome home".

The final hop to Asheville was pleasant.  The sun was up and I could look out the window at my own country again.  We landed, I grabbed my backpack, and headed out the door, where Janis and the dogs were waiting.  It was a great homecoming!

What really hit me on the drive home was how green everything was.  Southern Afghanistan is brown. Western North Carolina is GREEN.  Green trees, green grass, green fields.  What a difference.  Another thing was how fortunate we are to live in this country.  Even a small house in North Carolina is a palace compared to the mud-walled, dirt-floored homes that shelter millions in Afghanistan.  We take 24-hour electricity, clean running water, paved roads, and general lack of warfare for granted.  Trust me, these are blessings.

So now I'm home for a couple of weeks.  I've got a honey-do list that's not too big.  We've got dinner dates with friends and tickets to a ball game.  I need to start making some contacts for after-Afghanistan employment.

Mostly, I just want to be with Janis and the dogs.  Home again.