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!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Who's Got the Gator?

Do you have the Gator?  Do you know when I can get a turn with the Gator?

No, we don't have a new pet crocodile that we're sharing.  

Most of the time, we use our Leather Personnel Carriers (our boots) to get around the base, carrying heavy bags and such.  

On special occasions though, we can commandeer the use of "The Gator."  It's a small All Terrain Vehicle made by John Deere that has a pickup style bed.

Today I was able to borrow the Gator for a little while to run a few errands.  The mission?  Deliver four sheet metal boxes full of carpets and clothing to the post office to mail home for someone who just recently left.

The Gator makes it much easier to get around with a load.  

We also used it to haul mail from the post office back to our main building for distribution.  

When we had a BBQ the other night, we used it to transport the food, drinks and supplies across base from the dining facility.

Of course, we can't drive fast or far with it, but taking a trip around the block with it is a little bit of fun in an otherwise uneventful day.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Daring Adventure

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing” said Helen Keller, an American writer who was struck blind and deaf by disease at the age of nineteen months. 

This, or a similar phrase, “Every day is a grand adventure,” has been my motto ever since college.  If I were to call you on the phone, you could bet that I’d ask “What’s new and exciting?”

Excitement and adventure are great concepts.  Snowboarding in the mountains, sailing on the ocean, trekking across Africa are some examples that people would think of when referring to an adventure.

I still have that sense of adventure, but I’ve noticed it changing, developing into something different.  Age and personal painful experience have led me to realize now that snowboarding is fun, but crashing is not.

Sailing could be fun, or it could be hours and days of monotony punctuated by moments of terror mixed with nausea. 

Trekking through Africa could be interesting, if not for the insects, wars, diseases, and all manner or crocodiles, lions, and other animals that would waste no time before eating or crushing you if you stumbled upon them.

In short, everything has its downside.  Which leads me to believe that every downside must have an upside. 

We most likely would never heard of Helen Keller if she were not stricken with disease.  The cares of the day would likely have distracted her.  Would she have taken the time to read and study as she did if she could run freely and play like the other children? 

Perhaps she would have married and raised a family, never learning much of Shakespeare.  Perhaps she would have been too busy doing her chores to walk through the woods noticing the “delicate symmetry of a leaf” or the “smooth skin of the silver birch.”

We each have challenges to face.  We must choose how we respond to our challenges.

One older lady that I know fell and broke some bones, and ended up in the hospital for weeks before returning home in a wheelchair.  She mourned her loss of freedom for a few days, but then confided in me that she was becoming grateful for the accident.  Before, she had always been on the move, babysitting, helping people, running errands.  Now, she had time to sit, to read, to think, and to pray. 

She especially was appreciative for the opportunity to truly sit and think and pray on behalf of her friends, neighbors and family.  Her fall turned out to be a gift.  She has made some progress, but still is in a wheelchair most of the time.  She still prays for friends and family.

A few years ago, I sat on the ground, shocked and dismayed.  I had injured my knee while playing a game with a bunch of Army folks, and I was unable to stand.  A couple of guys helped me over to a bench on the sidelines while another one went to fetch my car for me.  

I thought about what this injury might mean.  I was frustrated, hurt, and strangely alone for a few minutes.  As all tough guys would do, I’d said that I was fine…  So the other guys went back to playing the game for a few more minutes as I watched.

I was out of the game.  On the sidelines.  Broken.  Obsolete.

I was determined to turn this negative event into a positive experience.  Through therapy, surgery, and then much more therapy, I was able to regain much of my strength and ability, though I no longer play those fast moving, twisting games of youth.

Now I understand that every day IS an adventure, even if you don’t “climb every mountain” or “ford every stream.”  

I can appreciate the little things more than I used to.

Like a momma cat carrying her kittens to a new home on base.  New life, brought forth in the dust and gravel.

Like the hugs of new found friends as they prepare to return home.

Like the ability to touch lives, one at a time, whether with a kind word, service, or a small gift.

Helen may have said it best:
“A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.”

Not everything is new and exciting.  Often, old and comfortable is also worthwhile.  I’m starting to see the values of taking a little more time to enjoy the experience.

Every day still is a grand adventure, but now I know where I want to be when the adventure is over.  More importantly, I know who I want to be with.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Did You Miss It?

It was "Queen's Day" or "Koninginnedag" yesterday!

You celebrated, right?

One of the interesting things here about interacting with people of other nations is the ability to learn a little about their culture.

For the Dutch (people from the Netherlands), Queen's day is a celebration of the Queen's birthday and it's supposed to be a day of national unity and togetherness.

They have open markets all over the country.  I imagine it's the biggest flea market and yard sale that you've ever seen.

The Dutch national colors are Red White and Blue, but many of the decorations that are used during this holiday are orange, as the Dutch Royal family is referred to as the "House of Orange."  It's called the "orange craze" or "oranjegekte" where orange is everywhere.

Here, we had orange banners and streamers decorating the dining facility, and of course, several orange foods were served.  (I admit that I'm cheating on this picture... It was taken a few weeks ago on a day when much of the food was also orange.)

The Dutch contingent here had their own little party set up outside, and many of them were wearing orange shirts and hats.  One young lady was wearing a traditional long dress.

Open Air concerts and festivities are part of the experience back in the Netherlands, making it a popular time to visit and for homecomings.  If you ever want to go, you must plan ahead... A little research let me know that you'll have to book your accommodations months in advance!

Though I'm sure many of them missed the all day experience from back home, they brought a spirit of fun to the base for a few hours.