Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day

It's Mother's Day...

I'd like to take a few minutes to say "Thank You" to all of the ladies in my life.

Motherhood is a state of mind.  The gifts of nurturing and caring for children and others are evident when watching the women that I've spent much of my life around.

When I was a young child, my dad was off working much of the time, so my mother and grandmothers took care of me.  My aunts and great aunts doted on me whenever they saw me while growing up.

Soon, I was dating, and though I wasn't ready to marry and have my own children, I learned to look for ladies who would be a good mother eventually.  Eventually, I married my sweetheart and turned her into a mother!

I appreciate all the service that has been given to me in my life.  My role has turned to one of breadwinner and provider while my sweet wife stays home to be the mother for our children.  She has a different style than her mother, her sister, my mother, and everyone else.  She's her own woman, and I love and appreciate her for it.

Thanks to all of you ladies... And Happy Mother's Day!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

I Admit It. I'm a Writer!

I started writing last month in order to complete Connie Green's 30 day challenge, to find my voice, and to share a few things that I've seen or learned while here in Afghanistan.

It's hard to believe that I've established a new habit that I don't want to break, at least not yet...  As I walked around today, I noticed that I noticed things that I might have ignored before.  

As I walked, I thought, "I need to write something about how the Afghan vendors eat lunch together each day."  

"I hope that helicopter takes off so that I can get a good picture."

"How can I communicate this thought to others? "

"How do I describe this feeling?"

Then suddenly, the thought occurred to me: "Gasp!  I must be a writer!"

In my life, I've written quite a bit.  A lot of technical documentation.  News stories and even a few magazine articles.  Lots of evaluations and award recommendations.  Writing was something that I had to do for work.

But recently, I've been able to write whatever I wanted.   A challenge and an opportunity.  

Recently, I thought of Maria in the "Sound of Music" as she's on her way to meet the Captain and the children for the first time.

She starts off tentatively, quietly...

What will this day be like? I wonder.
What will my future be? I wonder.
It could be so exciting to be out in the world, to be free
My heart should be wildly rejoicing
Oh, what's the matter with me?

I've always longed for adventure
To do the things I've never dared
And here I'm facing adventure
Then why am I so scared?

Much like starting to write.  What to write about?  How to capture the essence of an experience and to communicate it to friends and family?  How much should I open up my thoughts to the world?

Luckily, I have some friends who have taught me and inspired me.  

Geoff of has been particularly uplifting, inspiring and educational.  I purchased his and Steve's "On Writing a Short Story" course a few months ago, and it really helped to get me started.
Helen Raptopulous of has also been very encouraging and inspiring.  Her energy and enthusiasm keeps me motivated.

This Challenge was Connie Green's brainchild, so of course, I'm grateful to her as well. is her website.  She's a great coach.

Of course there are many more people that I'd like to thank, but I can't even list them all.  
(And it's already 3 a.m.)

Like Maria, I started.  Bravely, she continued and her enthusiasm overcame her fears.  I continued, and though I'm not willing to commit to blogging every day, I will continue to share my thoughts with you.

All I trust I lead my heart to
All I trust becomes my own
I have confidence in confidence alone
Besides which you see I have confidence in me!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Afghan Proverbs

I risked life and limb again today by walking to the nearby base through the mob of children.

I saw all the same boys as yesterday, but the one in the back of the crowd in this picture walked with me for a few minutes along the way.  He spoke the best English of them all, and as we walked, of course he wanted me to buy a few bracelets made of beads and tied together with string.  

They're not bad looking little bracelets, but I don't typically wear them!

He offered to sell me a small English-Afghan Dari Dictionary with some proverbs in the back.  I admit it, I caved.  It's a cheap little book, but I bought it because of the variety of phrase and proverbs inside.  I knew at a glance that I wanted to have it as a souvenir for my boys to see...

Of course, I can't read the Dari, and many of the English translations are misspelled, but it is interesting to see that they teach what they know in the book.  For example, in a section with phrase related to building a house, it says nothing about drywall, insulation, or carpentry.   Nothing about wiring, inspectors, or permits.

Instead, it has the words for tin roof, mud, and stonework.

The proverbs are also enlightening.  For example, "A good year is determined by it's spring."    The book says that the meaning is that character and quality show up early, but I can't help but think that the root of that phrase is because this is such an agricultural society.  If there isn't snowfall on the mountains and rain in the spring, drought will make it difficult to graze herds and raise crops.  A dry spring will mean a hard year for these people.

Also, Afghans are know for their hospitality.  "The first day you meet, you are friends.  The next day you meet, you are brothers" is another of the phrases in the book.

My favorite, though, and the main reason I bought the book was a phrase referring to someone who gets dressed up or "moved to a higher position unworthily."  The phrase is "The same donkey, but with a new saddle."

In any country, an Ass is an Ass...

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Back Street Boys

I've mentioned a few of the boys before that beg for money or try to sell their bracelets and such on the streets between the bases.  As summer is here, and the weather is improving, more people have been walking around, and the boys have been out in force.

Many of us are parents, and it hurts our hearts a little to see these kids hanging out all day long, begging for money and generally putting themselves at risk by running out into the streets or hanging around the vehicles.

We're trying to teach them to stay out of the street, to be polite instead of aggressive.  One of my buddies told them that he wouldn't pay them to beg, but he'd pay them to carry his bag between the bases... So he'll give a kid a buck or so to walk along with him for the half mile between bases.

Today I had a reason to come off of the base to offload some equipment from a truck that was too big to come in through the gate.  Of course, the boys were all around, darting in and out of the vehicles and traffic.  So I again "drew them off" about ten feet to the side so that they'd be safely out of the way of the vehicles while the offloading was completed.

I asked them their names, and where they got their hats.  Of course, they were asking me for money, and I told them I'd come back later with something for them.  One young fellow, on the right in the picture asked me for twenty dollars, which he promised that he'd share with his friends.

I found out that a round piece of bread, like a small pizza crust costs about 10 Afghanis, so with the official exchange rate of about 46 Afghanis to the dollar, you'd think that you could buy four or five pieces of bread, but the boys have a worse exchange rate.  They say they only get 30 Afghanis to the dollar!

I promised I'd come back later... So I did.  I collected a few toys that had been donated, the last four boxes of Girl Scout Cookies, and a few quarters, figuring that they could probably buy a chunk of bread with that if they wanted...  I asked a coworker to accompany me, and off we went, back outside the base.

Of course, when the boys saw me, they immediately started to run out to cross the street, but I told them to stay over there and I'd be with them in a minute.  We crossed over with my plastic bag full of goodies and started to talk to the boys.  I told them I wanted to take their picture, and they lined right up.  It seems that most of these children, and the adults, enjoy having their picture taken.

They started crowding me and jostling about and I told them to stop being "grabby!"  The boy in the back of the picture said something, and amazingly, all of the kids sat down in a semi-circle around me!  I told them that if they were polite and patient they'd get more gifts, because people wouldn't be unhappy with them...

I distributed some plastic "slinky" type toys, and some super bounce balls, along with the cookies and two quarters each... They didn't want quarters, they wanted bills!  In any case, I was amazed that they were able to sit still and pay attention, even if only for a minute.

Then, when it was clear that I was out of goodies, the shout went up and they ran off.  A crowd of "new customers" was walking down the street, and they rushed off to greet them.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Surf and Turf

(Warning, late night rambling ahead.  Be prepared for sudden stops, starts and changes of direction.)

Friday evenings, most of the bases around here have a "Surf and Turf" theme.  They'll have a big BBQ grill running outside and lots of steaks on the grill.  Inside, they'll have huge crab legs or shrimp.

Of course, that's most bases, not ours.  So we'll often make a little trip down the street to sample the cooking of our neighbors.  The flames will be jumping up around the steaks as they cook... The smoke from the grills carries that sweet smell for hundreds of feet.

I'm in favor of eating beef, but not so much in favor of crabs, shrimp or lobster.  I don't eat cockroaches, grasshoppers, ants or crickets, so why would I want to eat larger insects that happen to live underwater?

I'm told that they taste great, but my theory is that almost anything dipped in a tub of butter is going to be at least tolerable.  Why not try some Irish Soda Bread, or yeast rolls to consume with your butter?

And speaking of butter, I'm looking forward to going to one of those steak houses where you can get honey butter to spread over your hot fresh rolls.  Cinnamon Butter is also good, especially on a sweet potato.

But I digress... (Can you tell I'm looking forward to a change of menu?)

Heck, I even overheard myself speaking with a hint of sadness over not having a McDouble in six months.

Overhearing yourself is an interesting concept too.  You're speaking with someone and suddenly realize that you've said something and you're not really sure where it came from or why it came out.

Missing McDonalds?  That's crazy talk.  Oh, but what I'd do for some White Castles about now...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The End is Near!

It's much like a race...

In the Army, a couple of times a year, you are required to take the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) or PT test.  Nobody really enjoys the PT test, but it's just another thing in a long list of things that must be done if you're going to be in the Army.

The Army PT test consists of 2 minutes of push ups, 2 minutes of sit ups, and then a 2 mile run.  Each service has a similar but slightly different test.  The test is scored according to your age, so generally the expectation is less as you age.  (Work Smarter, not Harder!)

It starts off with some instructions, and even a demonstration of the event.  The instructors will show both the right and wrong way to do a push up or a sit up, then a grader will count your repetitions for a full two minutes.   (Army Photo)

That's where it gets a little tough.  The first minute or so is work, but for all but the strongest, the second minute is a balance between more repetitions and rest.  If, for example, you went "down" on a push up but were unable to return properly to the "up" position, then your event is "terminated."  So for me, it's a good practice to rest every few repetitions to allow a few more deep breaths before continuing.

The same thing goes for the sit ups  Fail to come up, and the event is "terminated."

The two mile run is the endurance event though...  Many people line up eager to "get this over with."  When the command to "GO!" is given, like jackrabbits they rocket across the line and around the curve...

I on the other hand, know the pace that I can manage throughout, and start out at that speed.  By the time I've reached the one mile point, I've already passed most of the people who took off in a sprint.  For most of my career, I'd probably finish in the top 10% or so of the group, though I've slowed considerably the last few years.

It's a lot like work on a deployment.  Some people start out at a sprint, working eighteen hour days for weeks on end until they burn out.  Cigarettes, coffee and other sources of caffeine keep many people going, but it's a dangerous crutch to depend on chemical enhancement...  That sort of schedule might be necessary in some cases, but it's not a healthy long term choice.

I've tried to pace myself from the beginning, aiming for the 12-14 hour mark.  It's still a lot, but honestly I don't have much to do besides work!  I'm getting closer to the end of my tour, and starting to tie up loose ends.  I'm fixing things that I've been tolerating, and finishing things that I've left undone.  I'm picking up the pace, now that the finish line is almost in sight.  I want to ensure that my replacement gets off to a good start, since this is a relay race.  I'll pass it to him and he'll pass it to someone else.

There's a point in each PT test or race... You're cruising along, doing your pace, when suddenly you realize that you've only got a short distance to go, When you realize that you're going to make it, you refocus your energy and speed up, hoping to make it over the finish line with a burst of speed as the last of your energy is exhausted.  I'll tell you, the best part of a PT test is when it's complete.

You take some deep breaths, walk around for a few minutes, stretch and recover.  Soon, you may find yourself proud of your effort and accomplishment...

That's my goal... To finish strong and well, pass the mission to my replacement, and then to go home and stretch out.  To be proud not only that I completed my assignment, but that I did it well.

Two Hugs and a Hooah!

You’ll find many characters while on a deployment overseas.  Though the military will try to rid you of personality in basic training, most people regain their individuality sometime during their first assignment.
The kid who always told jokes will soon be joking.  The one who likes to read will find a book.  Everyone’s character starts to show after a while.  And of course, many of our deployers are civilians here and haven’t had their character suppressed.

Speaking of characters, we had a few leave for home in the last few days.  Some folks stay to themselves, others find a friend or two to chat with or eat meals with.  Other folks go out of their way to touch the lives of those around them.

One of these leaving us was a somewhat strong willed woman who ended up being the honorary "Mother figure" for many of us here.  Shopping was one of her specialties.  

She spent hours of her time interacting with the local vendors, and helping everyone who accompanied her to get the best deal.  Don’t feel too bad for the vendors though, she probably bought enough stuff to support an entire village.

Where she really excelled was in her ability to coordinate the production of “Shadow Boxes” to commemorate people’s sacrifices by deploying to this corner of the world.  A Shadow Box is a deep picture frame set up to display certificates, flags, medals, ribbons, coins etc...  

She worked to determine what the most appropriate contents of the box should be for each person, placed the orders and oversaw the final assembly of each presentation piece. 

Truly, people have had tears in their eyes as they considered their new wall art, though some were probably crying as they realized how much it would cost to ship the shadow box home!

All in all, she made this a better place for many of us.  Of course, she was intent on ensuring that everyone got their final hugs before she left.

Gun Bunny left as well, so I spoke with her for a minute or two before she loaded up.  She already had her body armor on, so the quick hug we shared felt a little funny.  Like holding onto an ice cream sandwich, you feel the hard outer shell, but you know there’s a soft gooey center in the middle.  It caused me to ponder our conversation from a few days earlier.  I wish her the very best in her next adventure.

I actually missed the departure of the “knife warrior,” though I had said goodbye the night before.  He was a soldier with an obsessive affinity for cutlery.  At any given moment, he would be carrying half a dozen or more knives in sheathes and pockets and on clips all over his body.  Two large fighting knives and a variety of smaller throwing and stabbing blades… 

He actually was a very personable and friendly gentleman who just happened to be very knowledgeable on martial arts and fighting with knives.  A hug might have prompted a discussion about close combat cutting techniques, so my farewell ended with a simple “Hooah!”

“Hooah!” for those of you who don’t know, is a multifunctional and multipurpose word primarily used in the Army to signify an affirmative response, or to describe a motivated individual. 

“That soldier finished first in his class at Ranger School.  He’s Hooah!”
“Do you want some Ice Cream?”  “ Hooah!”

Their replacements have arrived, with their own stories and personalities, and I'm just starting to get to know them.  We've all shared a common experience that relatively few Americans have.  We've left friends and family behind to work in another part of the world, hoping that it becomes a better place.

Some come for duty, or adventure.  Others for the paycheck and the sense of accomplishment.  All of us have come together.  So ironically, by leaving friends and family we've gained new friends and family.  We'll all go home at some point and have to say our goodbyes.  At least until we meet on the next deployment!