Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Corona Virus: In the Beginning

In just three or four short weeks, the corona virus has gone from zero to out of control.  To be perfectly selfish, I'm happy I'm semi-retired and live in a rural area in the North Carolina mountains.  Yes, the wife and I are over 65, so we're in the high-risk category.  But self-quarantine is not too difficult to do here.  We don't have to go anywhere much, just the dump, post office, and grocery store.  I go down to Asheville to work in my studio, and I'm alone there.  My life drawing sessions are cancelled for the duration.  My proposal-writing work is always done from home.  So we're in fairly good shape.

As mentioned in the last post, I got a scare during my time at Muscatatuck a couple of weeks ago.  Three people got very sick.  Turned out they had the flu, rather than Covid-19, but the scare was real.  As I write this, the Defense Department has not cancelled next month's training.  I expect they will, but just in case, I notified them that I will not be at next month's training.  I love doing that work and believe it's important.  But while important, the training is not critical to our students' missions, it just helps them do their jobs (all supporting military bases and operations) better.  On the other hand, coming down with Covid-19 could kill me or my wife.  That's not a risk I'm willing to take.  And if that means I don't get called back to do the training anymore, so be it.

In this area of North Carolina, there aren't many cases yet, but they're growing every day.  Asheville has 12 cases at the moment and it's clear that the virus is spreading through the community.  What that seems to mean is that some/many people are asymptomatic and are passing the virus without actually getting sick themselves.  The only way to know for sure how broadly it has spread around the community is to test everybody, and that, of course, won't happen.  Our governor has closed all public schools and taken some other measures.  Buncombe County (where Asheville is) and Asheville itself have implemented some more.  I live in Madison County, north of Asheville.  We don't have any known cases yet, but our county manager has requested everybody implement shelter-at-home procedures.  That's a smart call.  I manage the art gallery at Mars Hill University, and the school is basically closed, with students doing their classes online.  We closed the gallery and have no idea when we might be able to have a show again. 

Meanwhile, New York is getting hit hard and the federal government in Washington is proving to be incapable of handling the crisis.  Trump downplayed it for weeks, then grudgingly accepted that it was dangerous.  But his words and actions have been totally irresponsible.  His touting of unproven capabilities for a lupus drug to counter the corona virus has led people to hoard the drug at home, meaning the real lupus patients can't get it, and nobody knows if the drug does anything to the coronavirus anyway!  And one man has died because he took something with a similar name and it killed him.  Meanwhile, none of the federal agencies, all "led" by people who are trying to prove they're loyal to Trump rather than accomplish their jobs, are getting much of anything done.  The real leader in the country is Governor Cuomo of New York.  He's doing news conferences every day, telling New Yorkers the straight scoop, implementing the measures he can, and trying to get the equipment and supplies needed to fight the virus.  With little/no help from the feds, I might add.  And today, Trump said he wants to have the US open for business again by Easter, which is two and a half weeks away.  What a dumbass.  That will just lead to more sick people, more overloaded hospitals, and more deaths.

So I'm doing what I can, which is to sit tight and have as little direct contact with other people as possible.  Not only am I trying not to get the virus from others, I'm trying to not pass it on if it's already in me.  I'm washing my hands, carrying disinfectant wipes around with me, using those blue medical gloves, and staying away from people.  And I'm afraid we'll have to be doing this for a year or more, until a vaccine is available.

A truism from the Lord of the Rings:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Afghanistan Training

I spent the last week at the Muscatatuck (pronounced "mus-CAT-a-tuck") Urban Training Center, helping to train another group of Defense Department civilians who are heading to Afghanistan for a year.  I'm doing this every month now.  For me, it's the unicorn of day jobs: it's an important mission, it's something that I can do pretty well, it's a helluva lot of fun, and I get to work with some wonderful people.

To answer your first question first, yes, we're still sending civilians to Afghanistan.  These are the people who run much of the day-to-day operations at the bases so that the soldiers can concentrate on doing their mission outside the wire.  These civilians do the financial management, manage contracts, run the dining facility, manage the gyms and physical training facilities, take care of personnel records, manage the local hires (yes, we hire a lot of Afghans), maintain the vehicles, keep the HVAC up and running, you name it.  Most of the civilians will interact with Afghans frequently, if not continuously.  The training we do at Muscatatuck gives them important insights into how to bridge the cultural differences so that they can accomplish their jobs from day 1.

Our training is immersive.  The students are effectively already working on a base in Afghanistan and they have to go outside the wire with their military security personnel and meet with various Afghans on a variety of issues.  And these are real Afghans, too.  Each of our training events builds on previous ones, so things get more complicated the further along they get. 

I had a great team of students.  I'm using the word "team" advisedly, because that's the way they operated: as a team.  Every one of them got to lead the team on a training event, but every one of them also needed help from the rest of the team as each of the events went on.  They would jump into a discussion whenever they had something to contribute, and on occasion they pulled their team leader back from the brink when he/she was about to go off in the wrong direction.  It was wonderful to see.

I've been doing this training for quite a few years now and have gotten to know our Afghans pretty well.  And the more I work with them, the more I see just how good they really are.  Most have been doing this training longer than I have - many were here when I came through the course in 2011.  They know the issues that need to be worked, and they know how to direct the conversation.  And they know how the events can go completely sideways, and when that happens, they know when to let it go and when to rein it in.  Every time we do this training, I see them showing more nuances and aspects that I hadn't seen before. We are very, very fortunate to have these men and women to train our people heading downrange.

The corona virus was turning into a Big Thing this week and we had a scare when three people got really sick.  Turned out they all had the flu, rather than Covid-19, but it was still serious.  Our training might get shut down for a couple of months if the scare continues.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Destroying Artworks

Yesterday, I was working away in the studio on several different projects.  One of them was trying to decide what to do about one particular artwork.  It was a charcoal and pastel portrait that has been sitting there for a few weeks.  I didn't like it.  It was overworked, had a somewhat awkward composition, and had been a fight since the very beginning.  The young woman who was the subject had liked it.  So, rather than trash the artwork right away, it sat in a corner for a while.  Maybe I'd give it to her.  Maybe I shouldn't.  I kept kicking the decision down the road.

I trashed it yesterday.

That's not the first time.  Actually, I trash a fairly large proportion of my works, maybe 50%.  Which brings up the question, why?  Why throw away something that has a lot of time and effort put into it, especially when somebody appreciates it?  Why throw away so much work?

Well, I look at something and ask myself, would I be willing to exhibit that work?  Exhibiting something means that I'm comfortable with putting my name on an artwork and telling the world, "this is what I can do".  If it doesn't meet that standard, there are two choices: change it or destroy it.  Otherwise, it's just another substandard thing that's cluttering up my studio, and trust me, I have enough things cluttering up my studio right now.  Hell, I could put on three simultaneous shows of my own work at any one time.  So adding stuff that I wouldn't want others to see is not something I want to do.

Regarding changing an artwork, yes, I do that sometimes.  Usually it fails, but  it works out occasionally.  A successful change requires me to get into the right mindset.  It sounds corny, but I have to be "one with the painting", meaning the painting and my brain have to be in synch.  If not, it'll be a failure.  The painting also has to have an underlying composition that works and a subject that's interesting.  Just like you can't fix a house with a bad foundation, you can't fix a painting that has a bad composition.

And if I decide a painting has failed?  Two options.  One, sand it down and then slap a coat of oil primer on it.  That gives me a new blank canvas.  Or, if I've already done that a time or two and have decided that this particular canvas is jinxed, it goes into the trash.

And, as for that young woman who liked the artwork that I later destroyed, well, sorry.  Even if I gave it to her, I'd know that there was a substandard piece of art out there with my name on it.  That's intolerable. 

And, yeah, I'll probably give her one of the other artworks where she's the subject ...