Sunday, March 31, 2013

Back at Muscatatuck

I'm back at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, helping to train a group of mostly military guys who are heading to Afghanistan.  We've been at it a couple of days now.  I'm in a different role than last time.  Now I'm a mentor to one of the student teams, trying to guide them along the training process.  This is a fun role: I'm directly involved with the same students every day, helping them gel as a team, and preparing them for both the upcoming events this week and for what they'll encounter downrange.  These guys are sharp, too, which makes my role easier in some respects and harder in others.  A good thing, all around.  America, you should still be proud of the people you're sending in harm's way.

When I came up here last month, I flew from Asheville to Indianapolis, and then hooked up with a couple of other trainers for the drive down to Muscatatuck.  This time, I rented a car in Asheville and drove up.  I figured that the total travel time would be about the same, driving is more fun (to me, anyway), and this would ensure that I had wheels for the entire week.  Good call.  The drive was, indeed, fun, especially the first half, which wound through the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.  It's a beautiful area, really spectacular.  Once past the mountains, I-75 rolled along through Kentucky horse country, which was beautiful in different way.  Great drive. 

I wound up with a Nissan Altima for a rental car.  It's a pretty good machine.  The styling is kinda generic, the seats are comfortable, the interior controls easy to learn, and the sound system is strong.  The best feature is the handling, by far.  It's really impressive, with great response and great grip.  The first leg of my trip was on two-lane roads through the mountains and the Altima was a hoot to drive on those twisty roads.  On the negative side, the sound isolation could be better as there was a bit of rumbling coming out of the rear end over different road surfaces.  The steering and brakes are both way too light - Nissan should dial some of the power assistance out.  And I'm not a fan of the continuously-variable transmission (CVT).  It works fine, but I felt like it made too many choices for me, isolating me from much of the driving experience.  If Nissan would give the car a manual transmission, tweak the suspension to get some of that rumble out, tweak the exhaust to put a little rumble in, and make a few other minor changes, they'd have a killer sports sedan.

So now it's back to work.  Gotta do a few things to get ready for tomorrow.  

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Life Drawing Again!

Last night, I went to my first life drawing session in two years.  Two years!  Yes, I was rusty, but that was to be expected.  We had a lovely model who provided some unexpected drama when she fainted dead away in her first long pose.  Fortunately, she was sitting on the platform when she passed out, so she didn't have far to go, but it was a little frightening for her and for us.  She rallied back and was perfectly okay the rest of the session.  So here are a couple of the sketches:

This one was done with a pen.  Drawing a soft female figure with a harsh black pen is a challenge, which is why I did it - the whole point being to loosen myself up.

This later one was done with a really crappy plastic mechanical pencil.  I like a good mechanical pencil, but this must've come from K-Mart or something.  But you run what ya brung, so there 'tis.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

This 'n' That

Spring has sprung
The grass has riz
I wonder where
the flowers is?

They're buried under the snow!

So here we are, a week or so into spring, and we're getting walloped with snow.  It's almost 6" deep on the deck and still coming down.  Good day to stay home and catch up on admin and related work.

I went out and shoveled the driveway a little bit ago.  The snow wasn't too deep, but I needed some exercise, and past experience showed that driving over the snow just packs it down and makes it stay longer, usually right where you don't want it.  While I was out there, I discovered that our bear is back. Yesterday, he destroyed our bird feeders and knocked over a candle lantern on our deck.  Last night, he apparently went looking for food under the fiberglass covering for our well pump.  At least he didn't destroy the cover, he just knocked it over.  I'd rather he didn't look for food around here (besides the bird feeder, there's nothing outside, not even trash), but having bears in the vicinity is just part of living in the North Carolina countryside.

The studio is coming along well.  We've painted the walls, trim, doors, and the framework for the ceiling tiles.  The next step is the landlord's: I've asked them to replace the ceiling tiles, since the tiles are all painted yellow.  We'll see if they do; if not, I'll have to pull them down and paint them.  NOT looking forward to that task!  After that, we're going to repaint the floor.  The landlord had it painted right before I moved in, but even though we used drop cloths, the floor is still covered with drips and splats.  Anyway, I want to change the color from medium gray to a medium brown, just to warm things up a bit.  Once that's done, I'll move the remainder of my stuff from storage.  And then I get to start painting!

Meanwhile, back at home, I've done some fiddling with my computers.  I installed the newest version of iPhoto on my Mac, adjusted the settings, and now am able to use this thing called "the cloud" to some basic degree.  I can take a picture with my iPhone and, miraculously, it also appears on my Mac.  I can make an entry on my Mac's calendar and it shows up on my iPhone.  Very cool.  

One thing that was not cool about iPhoto was that, when it imported all my pictures from the old version, it deleted all the associated comments.  That really pissed me off.  It's also slower and hangs up more often.  I won't say it crashes, it just shows the "spinning wheel of death" for a while before suddenly completing the action.  Good thing I have Solitaire installed to keep me busy while I wait.  My guess is that the new software has much more code to chunk through and it just takes longer, especially on my 5-year-old laptop.  Later, I looked at the comments about iPhoto on Apple's own web site and they're horrendous.  People are complaining that their upgrades wiped out all their photos, that iPhoto crashes and burns on a regular basis, and many other complaints.  Janis has asked about upgrading her computer so that she can use the cloud, too, but I'm a bit leery of doing it now.  Just because it worked (more or less) on my computer doesn't mean it'll work on hers, too.

Not only did I "upgrade" my iPhoto, but I also upgraded to the newest version of Photoshop Elements. My old one was, like my laptop, five years old.  It worked fine, but didn't have all the newest bells and whistles.  It's going to take me a while to get moderately capable with this new version.  

That'll do for now.  My dogs are telling me that it's time to go for their ride.  It's funny: part of their daily routine is to ride along on the regular rounds to the dump, post office, grocery store, and whatever else we have to do.  If we don't get on the road by noon, they come looking for us, saying "Hey, get on the stick, time to go do your errands!"  Which is exactly what they're doing now.  So, excuse me, but I have to obey my dogs.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Studio Developments

We're still working on getting the new studio ready.  I yanked out almost all the computer cabling that lined the walls so there wouldn't be any interruptions.  Meanwhile, Janis and I (mostly Janis) have been busy painting.  If you compare this picture to the one in the last post, you'll see that the yellow walls are gone (yay!), replaced by a neutral light gray.  We're also painting the doors and trim a bright white.  The ceiling tiles, though, still have that nasty yellow on them.  I've asked the building manager for new ceiling tiles.  If that he doesn't come through, then I'll have to paint them white.  The yellow affects all the colors in the room - in fact, you can see it in the photo, as the door, walls, and other areas have a yellow tinge to them.  Imagine what that might do to a painting!  We're going to have to repaint the floor, too, even though the landlord did it right before I moved in.  We put down drop cloths but still managed to get drips, splats, and light gray footprints all over the floor.  Besides, with the gray walls, there's just too much "gray" in there.

Still, it's coming along, and I'm very happy with it.  Next month, I'll be a working artist again!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

New Studio

My big news this week: I have a new studio.  It's about a 650 square-ft studio in the Riverside Business Park, which is about 3 miles NW of UNC Asheville, right on the French Broad River.  I'll have one large room for painting, drawing, stretching canvas, and life drawing sessions, and one small room that I'll use for storage.  To say I'm excited is an understatement!

The Business Park is an interesting place.  It was built as a textile mill, but closed down around 1990.  In 1995, new owners began converting it into a bunch of small offices, warehouses, industrial spaces, and artist studios.  There are a few of my artist friends out here, including Brian Mashburn and Julyan Davis.  The studio next door is used by the NC Stage Company for rehearsals.  There's a green-earth company around the corner, a kayak company downstairs, larger firms like Mountain Mobility and the Metropolitan Sewerage District, and a whole host of others.  I like the vibe of the place: it feels purposeful and friendly.  It's a place where people come to get work done.

Here are a couple of "before" pictures of my new studio space.  The previous tenant (a telemarketer) painted it a hideous yellow and ran phone and computer lines throughout.  There were ten cubicles stuffed in here.  Ack!  I can't imagine having to sit jammed in a tiny cubicle for eight hours a day, calling people who don't want to be called, having to meet a quota specified by some goon at the end of the room.  Talk about a sweatshop!  I'd rather go work in a war zone.  Oh, wait, I already did that ...

So the telemarketer environment has to go.  Janis and I are repainting the walls to a light neutral gray with white trim.  We even have to repaint the ceiling tiles, for chrissakes!  I'm yanking the phone and computer lines.  This afternoon, I hooked up my stereo system so we'll have some tunes to keep us entertained.  It'll probably take a week to get all that done, and then I can move everything over from the storage unit.  I'm thinking of having a grand opening sometime in April.

Not much longer, and I'll be able to say that I'm a working artist again.  Damn, that feels good!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Week of Training

The training that we did last week at Muscatatuck is over.  All of our students are now in Kabul, getting the last bit of training, going through lots of boring briefings, getting issued more gear, and waking up at 2 am and not being able to get back to sleep.  Ahh, yes, do I miss those days?

The training that we did last week was immersive.  We set up scenarios where they had to meet with Afghan "governors", "line ministers", and other officials, and carry out their duties.  The roles of the Afghans were played by Afghans who, quite often, had actually been officials.  Two "judges" had actually been judges; a "public health minister" had been a high-level official doctor, and so on.  Most have been doing these training scenarios for several years, so they know the ropes.  My job was to ensure that the scenarios went off more or less as they were supposed to.  In effect, I was the director of a series of plays in which only half the actors had the script.  Which meant that the plays could, and did, go off in unintended directions.  Nothing like sitting there, seeing the scenario getting hijacked into a subject that we hadn't considered, and thinking "I wonder how this is going to turn out ..."  But as I mentioned, our Afghan role-players were experienced, and they handled the curve balls with ease.  I was quite impressed with their ability to quickly adjust to an unexpected plot twist, deal with it realistically, and smoothly manage to get the train back on track.

I must have done my job fairly well because I've been invited back for the next round.  This time I'll have a different role: I'll be a mentor for one of the student teams.  That means I'll be with them from early morning to evening, providing some advice and assistance, answering questions, and prodding them along in their decision-making.  I'm really looking forward to it.  

Monday, March 04, 2013


I'm at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in southeast Indiana.  I'm here for a week to help provide training to the next group of State Department and USAID people heading downrange to Afghanistan. This is the same training that I went through 18 months ago, just before deploying, and it is really cool to be able to give back my experiences (or pay them forward?) to those who are on watch next.

Muscatatuck (pronounced mus-CAT-a-tuck) is an interesting place.  It was originally built in the 1920's as "a home for the feeble-minded" (their words, not ours).  It consists of a lot of old yellow brick buildings arranged in a campus-like settings.  Some were dorms, others were offices, classes, work areas, a cafeteria, a hospital, and so on.  In the 70's, the hospital was closed down and eventually it was turned over to the National Guard and revamped into a training center.  Now it is a national asset.  It provides realistic training environments to all kinds of classes.  Federal civilians (like myself) go through training for Afghanistan.  SEALS and other elite military forces practice operating in an urban environment.  FEMA, various local agencies, and NGOs learn about disaster response.  There's a permanent school for troubled teens here.

This looks like a ruined parking garage.  It's not, really.  It's specially built to give students the experience of operating in a devastated area.  SEALS, for example, might practice combat operations, or emergency workers can practice getting injured people out of a collapsing structure.  This "garage" has floors that can go up and down to simulate building collapse.  The first time I saw it, though, it looked exactly like parking garages I saw in Sarajevo after the war.

This is a specially-built area to provide training for emergency workers in flood rescue.  All those flooded houses were deliberately built to look like flooded houses.

Here's one of the old 1920's-vintage buildings, along with a section that looks like a street in some third-world country.  It looks like it's in bad shape, right?  Actually, the buildings are all structurally strong.  Many of the old buildings are desolate-looking inside, with crumbling concrete steps, broken furniture, and dirt and dust everywhere.  But it provides a pretty realistic introduction for what Afghan hands will find downrange.  The debris field?  It was specially created, along with demolished cars all over the place.

My job this week is to run some of the training scenarios for the students.  They're going to be put into situations where they have to meet with Afghan officials, talk with private citizens, respond to requests for assistance, have TV cameras shoved in their faces, and get "attacked".  All these are realistic situations.  The role-players are all Afghan citizens who now live in the United States.  They're a great bunch of people.  Many are very educated and had very responsible roles in Afghanistan.  Like me, they really want to help prepare these students for life in Kabul or wherever they're going.  Most of the role-players have been doing this for a long time and are very experienced at the different scenarios.

The other trainers are a great bunch as well.  All have been downrange for anywhere from one to four years.  There are ex-military, ex-cops, a lawyer, a European, former USAID and State Department workers, a former Assistant Secretary in three agencies, graybeards, and young folk.  What really distinguishes them is that all are mission-focused.  They're committed to providing the best and most effective training possible.  Clock-watching and nit-picking is NOT a part of their vocabulary.  Whatever it takes, it will get done, without theatrics and usually without asking.

So that's my business this week.  It's been a lot of fun since I arrived here Friday.  The rest of this week looks like it'll be even more fun.  Our first real scenario is in a couple of hours.  Time to get to work!