Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Some Ghosts Are Better Left Alone

When I was a young Army Special Forces officer I was talking to my battalion commander over a beer in a dusty Panamanian bar. He was telling stories from his younger days, tales filled with intrigue and danger, tromping around South and Central America doing the bidding of the United States Government. I commented that he should write a book when he leaves the military. He smiled and replied, “I would, but I don’t think that I want my mother knowing what I’ve done”. I loved that answer and twenty years later I still do.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Not Something To Think About

Halloween mask at Knoxville's Boo At The Zoo

I was browsing the stacks at Barnes & Noble the other day while wearing a Scottish hat known as a ‘balmoral’, sort of a dark blue beret with a pewter cap badge attached to one side. As I was walking around a thirty-something African American man approached me and very nicely asked what the “medal was on the side of my hat”. I explained to him that it was my clan badge. At that point the man’s attitude changed dramatically and with an irritated look on his face he turned and abruptly walked away.

I was standing there dumbfounded, wondering why the sudden change of tone. I then realized that I had said, ‘clan’ but he had heard was ‘Klan’. Feeling badly and embarrassed I wanted to find him and explain the misunderstanding, but he was already gone.

I realized that I’m not very sensitive to race, if I even think of it at all. I find it all very archaic and boorish, which I’m quite happy with.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Old Soldiers

It’s been a year since I retired from the military, and I look back with little if no regret. There’s a good quote that I’ve always identified with that states, “Joining the military was the best thing that I ever did in my life, and leavening it was the second best”. There’s a lot of wisdom in those words.

I never wanted to be one of those guys that surrounded his retired life with the trappings of his former profession. They’re very common among military retirees; hats, license plates, flags in the front yard, a dog named 'Adjutant', sandbagged gun emplacements on the roof. It was a part of my life, but it wasn’t my entire life.

The day that I left the military I pushed away from my desk, patted a few friends on the shoulders, and quietly slipped out the side door. No muss, no fuss, just the way I came in. Walking to the car that day I reached for my green beret in my right cargo pocket and was cognizant that it was the last time that I will ever wear it.

At home the uniform came off and went into a trunk with the rest of them, neatly folded and tucked away for some future generation to find. And so end’th an era… or two.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Genealogist's Dream

When I was younger I dabbled in genealogy. I traced my family back to Prince Edward Island, Canada where I became lost in the rural, undocumented morass of the early nineteenth century. Since then my mother has taken up the challenge and met with great success. I firmly believe that given a few more months I will be able to trace my lineage back to Jesus.

If you go back through the family tree far enough all you generally encounter is a name, a couple of dates, and maybe a spouse; not a lot of information on the person that you are looking at. All of this makes me wonder what future generations of genealogists are going to see of us.

Today our lives are so thoroughly documented and recorded, a plethora of information for my great great great grandson. (If you’re reading this, nice to meet you). It wouldn’t take a skilled researcher hardly any effort at all to assemble a detailed biography of any one of us. What a great opportunity for future generations to see exactly where they came from. Like all genealogists however, they'll blow right past us and wallow in the masochistic muck of the nineteenth century with great delight. Lot’s of luck!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Choose Wisely

A young highland dancer gets ready to compete

Walking around the highland games over the weekend I couldn’t help but notice the vast amount of children participating in the various piping and dancing events. A common sight was a young, kilted kid blowing on a towering set of pipes while his or her father helped with the tuning of the instrument prior to the competition. I wondered how these kids became involved in such esoteric activities. Clearly the parents were pipers or dancers and passed those interests onto their children, who now play and compete right along side the older generations.

It makes me very aware of my day-to-day activities because little eyes are always watching. If I pipe or compete in triathlon my sons will likely do the same. If I sit around on the couch eating Ding Dongs and drinking Yahoo the same is also true. The choices that we make today will ripple across generations long, long after we’re gone. The responsibility is almost unfathomable.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Highland Games

One of the things that I was anxious to get home for was the spectacle of the Highland Games here in Atlanta. I spent one entire day at the games hanging out with my fellow pipers, and another day bringing my wife and son to the event. It was a great opportunity to listen to some quality piping as well as shoot some interesting photos.

The Games are always fun; a Highland Meets Halloween sort of thing. I’m always amazed at what people will wear to these, half-naked men wrapped in table cloths, others trotting around in tuxedo jackets and Nikes, and still more with every manner of medieval blade strapped to their bodies. Like I said, it’s a spectacle.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Through A Child's Eyes

A water taxi floats along in the early morning sunshine of the Dubai Creek.

Back home. I spent the day with my 3 year-old son yesterday, much to my sheer enjoyment. We ran some errands and I traded him a haircut for a piece of bubblegum out of the machine. I just sat back and watched him navigate the world. I couldn’t stop laughing and smiling as little guy jetted from one thing to the next, fascinated with everything he saw or could touch. At one point he came out with “I got me a haircut”. OK, I need to get THAT fixed, but it still made me laugh.

My son, like all children, takes so much pleasure in discovery. He sees things with a clean slate, no preconceptions, no prejudice, just unabashed interest and curiosity. Why do we ever loose that when we get older? Wouldn’t life be amazing if the mere act of watching a gumball roll out of the machine was the greatest thing in the whole world?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Foot In Each World

The Emirates now has one strike against it. The country with all of its progressiveness blocks certain websites, one of which is Flickr, my photo storage site. Flickr filters content on its own so I was surprised when I found out that it was on the Emirates’ restricted list.

I was speaking with several people last night and they were commenting about all of the rules that apparently exist here in the Emirates. Many of these limitations, like website filtering for instance, are based on religious and cultural beliefs founded in less progressive and developed times.

The Emirates on the surface looks to be the world’s model for development, but a closer look revels a country that is struggling with two different realities. Certainly the new infrastructure breathtaking but society remains hindered by a quiet cultural and religious authoritarianism that permeates everyday life. It’s a trade off I suppose. You can access the Net from just about anyplace in Dubai, but you’re limited as to what you can view.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Digg'n Dubai

An empty dhow makes it's way up the Dubai Creek. Vessels like this are loaded down with goods and make their way along the coast.

I spent the morning walking around the city of Dubai, or at least part of it. I walked along the Dubai Creek, which is really a river. I ended up taking an Arab coastal boat known as a dhow from the docks across to the other side, and then attempted to get lost in the city with my camera.

I wandered through some old markets and then to a more modern part of the city. The one thing that really sticks out is that Dubai is filled with Indians, Pakistanis, Sudanese, and various people from the Far East. I made an effort to stop and talk with as many people as I could, and they all appeared to be very friendly and welcoming. They happily let me photograph them and asked questions about where I was from. It was a stark contrast to other Arab countries that I have been. What an absolute fantastic city!

Sunday, October 14, 2007


The archway entrance to the Baghdad Zoo. It’s still open but it’s one of those places I think I’d rather not see.

Today is what we call my “out date”, the day when I beginning traveling homeward. It’s one of those days that's on a calendar but you try not to look at it fearing that it will never come.

I have 36 hours to spend in Dubai on my way home to Atlanta. I plan to get out and see as much of the city as I can. I really enjoyed Dubai the last visit, so I’m looking forward to taking some photos and traveling around a bit.

So here I am, on my way home. Oh yea, it’s my birthday too. Thanks Mom and Dad!

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Here’s one for the books. At the end of the Festival of Eid all of the children receive presents, much like the Christmas tradition. You'll never guess what every little boy gets. TOY GUNS!!! This is wrong on so many levels. The streets are full of little kids pointing plastic AKs at everything and everyone. When I first witnessed this I was utterly mortified. Maybe next year they can all get little play suicide bomber vests.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Eid ul-Fitr

Yesterday was Eid ul-Fitr here in Iraq, the day that marks the end of Ramadan, and a month of fasting. I’ve come to know it as “The Big Breakfast”.

The day starts with the normal prayers and then a small meal. People then gather in large congregational prayer sessions to greet each other in the spirit of peace and love. There are exchanges of gifts, hugs, and congratulations as Muslims emerge from a month of heavy effort and concentration on their faith.

Last night several large explosions around the city signified yet more senseless loss of life. Hand-made bombs designed to bring death and suffering killed someone’s son, daughter, father or mother; bombs made by Muslims to be used against their own. So much for the spirit of peace and love that Eid was supposed to evoke. I’ll never understand.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Laa atkallam ahrabee kateer

Iraqi woman with her granddaughter.

In years to come I’m going to have one regret from my time spent in the Middle East, and that will be not making more of an effort to learn Arabic. I can already see that I’m squandering a great opportunity.

I have some pat phrases down that the maids have taught me over the months, although I’m not sure that I’m pronouncing everything correctly. They laugh uproariously every time I ask if there’s any fresh bread for breakfast.

I’m terrible with languages. It took the Army over ten years to make me proficient at Spanish and I’ve been struggling with Japanese for twice that long. Now here I am with a perfect opportunity to learn Arabic and I’m not taking full advantage of it. Maybe I’ll start today.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Monks Amok

Two little girls, I believe they’re cousins, provide a good contrast as they examine a cellular phone

I’ve watched Burma's Buddhist monks on the news for some time now. While I believe that I have some understanding of the issues surrounding the current situation, I also have misgivings about Buddhist monks involving themselves in the political process.

I realize that there is a long history of monks becoming embroiled in various social movements, but I’m still disturbed seeing the faces of young monks, wrapped in robes, in direct confrontation with security forces and am wrestling with myself trying to grasp the arguments for and against such overt participation in social unrest. I’m sure there are all sorts of scholarly reasons that could be proffered by learned “Buddhist authorities”, but for my own little mind I suspect that the solution begins with an examination of why I am disturbed about this in the first place.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Looking For A Few Good Men... Sort Of

Even though I work in the security industry I’ve never been a big fan of the PSDs (Personal Security Detachments) and how they go about their business. I understand their job and its requirements, but I’ve always held that many are way too aggressive simply because they believe they can be, and many of the contractors working on the roads have no place whatsoever being there.

There are very few requirements needed to become a security contractor. Granted many companies vet their people as best they can and have established a baseline of required training and experience. Given, however, the need to fill slots in order to remain contract compliant some firms are signing on people that have the barest of qualifications. In theory you can be a volunteer fireman with two years of Army National Guard experience playing in the band, working the gun counter at Wal-Mart, and the next week be manning an automatic weapon on a gun truck in downtown Baghdad.

Now, with the Blackwater incident, it is all coming to light here in Iraq and around the world. The media has turned its lens on the PSDs and is now scrutinizing every single incident. Where the media goes the U.S. Congress will soon follow, and there will be a dramatic change in how at least U.S. government contracts are let in the future.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Coffee Club

An old man that has probably seen too much in his life. I found out later that he was all but blind.

I’m a lazy coffee drinker, especially while in Baghdad. Black, unsweetened, instant coffee is the norm. Growing up in Maine that’s how my father drank his, so that’s all I ever knew until I reached college. It’s fine by me, fast, easy, no fuss, and no mess.

Living here in the bureau all of the Iraqis drink tea. I suppose it’s something that they picked up from the Brits during the days of the Empire. The tea is served piping hot in tiny, thin plastic cups. I don’t understand how they don’t burn their fingers.

The other option here is Arabic coffee; some strange witches brew prepared on the stove in an odd looking little pot. It reminds me of the small coffees in South America, very small, sweet, and incredibly potent. It defies my “fast and easy” rule so I don’t drink much of it.

The Brits vacillate between coffee and tea. It’s as if they can’t make up their minds. They’re culturally drawn towards tea, but enjoy the fast jolt of a good utilitarian cup of coffee. Black coffee, on the other hand, is taboo with the Brits, and they look at me like I’m some sort of heathen for drinking it. Ah, they’ll come around in a generation or two.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

World Sport

A woman hides her face behind a burka.

The Rugby World Cup is among us and the bureau is following it closely on satellite television. For a gringo, rugby is a tad confusing, but I can see where American football gets many of it’s aspects. I watch the players wrestle and tackle each other and can’t help but think that an NFL quality running back would wreck havoc with these guys. The brits and kiwis vehemently claim that’s not the case, but I see an awful lot of arm tackling going on.

Now if rugby wasn’t bad enough I’ve also watched baseball’s distant cousin as well, cricket. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around that. I’m trying to picture Barry Bonds in a big floppy hat.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


A little boy fixes the chain on his bike amid the garbage-filled streets

We travel back and forth to the airport several times a week, dropping people off for flights out of the country and picking others up. If we get a chance we’ll normally stop at the military’s Post Exchange (PX) within one of the large camps and grab some Burger King, Subway, or Pizza Hut for lunch.

Every trip comes with a shopping list from both the media teams and the Iraqi staff. The westerners are pretty straight forward, cases of Red Bull, Starbucks, Oreos, Pop Tarts, etc… The Iraqis on the other hand only want one thing, socks.

We buy dozens upon dozens of pairs of white cotton athletic socks on every PX run and bring them back to the Iraqi staff. They’re $5.00 for a package of 6 so it’s no great effort. As soon as we get back they’re like baby birds in the nest, hovering around for their packet of socks.

On closer examination socks are an oddity here. The locals wear sandals everyday, no matter if they’re getting dressed up to go out someplace or just hanging around the house. I’ll stop here and not get into a vivid description of their feet, but you can only imagine what a lifetime of wearing sandals in the dessert is like. It’s not pretty.

At The Bakery

I young Iraqi girl with traditional Muslim headscarf peers out from behind a gate.

Yesterday we went to a local “bakery” to do a story. I brought my camera along to take a few shots and was asked to write a bit for a Fox News web story.

Here’s what I wrote:
At first glance the "bakery" was nothing more than a stone fire pit wedged up against a chain-link fence that separated the bare dirt lot from a trash heap, and it wasn't even doing a good job at that. My reaction was, "Oh, this is it?"

The family soon emerged from its home and began the bread making process. The "bakers" were two women dressed in traditional black burkas, a photographer's nightmare. Burkas are specifically designed to hide the wearer from curious eyes, or even more inquisitive cameras. Getting a clear shot of even one of the women was next to impossible while they continually adjusted their veils and averted their eyes. All I had were amorphous black shapes tending to a fire pit.

The children soon came to my rescue and insisted on being in every shot. The little girl with the bright blue headband and her more traditionally dressed cousin provided a good contrast. Soon the grandparents emerged and I turned the lens on them. I attempted to endear myself to the aged grandfather by showing him the shots that I had taken of him and his wife, but was soon told that he was blind. Probably better that way anyway.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Tea With Mickey Mouse

Yesterday, after the sun went down, we made an effort to visit some of the homes in the neighborhood as part of the Ramadan celebration. Enthusiastically welcomed by all of the families, we spent a few moments with each sharing tea and talking.

This was a unique event, giving me the opportunity to see the inside of several Iraqi homes. We sat within ornately formal living rooms and drank tea from Mickey Mouse shot glasses or sipped super sweet bubble gum flavored soda.

Over the course of the evening this is what we heard:

- 99% of Iraqis are profoundly grateful for what America has done for them.
- Sadam had brutalized this country and had crippled its development for years to come.
- In the past people did what they were told or their families were thrown in jail.
- There is a massive brain drain flowing from Iraq to neighboring countries.
- Other Arab countries like the Emirates or Jordan have developed nicely while Iraq has gone in the opposite direction.
- There is hope now for the younger generation.
- All children are now going to school from 8:30 in the morning to 12:30 in the afternoon.
- They accept the violence as an aberration and go about their daily lives trusting everything to God.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


A car bomb went off about 300 meters from the villa last night, rattling windows and shaking the walls. Nighttime explosions are a rarity with most coming in the early morning during rush hour.

The explosion was abruptly followed by the Minister of Interior’s militia firing its weapons, at what I have no idea. This is the biggest threat in one of these incidents, catching a stray round from some idiot with an AK. The shooting went on for about five minutes and it’s not hard to imagine that they were firing at themselves in the darkened, smoke filled streets.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Treating Iraq

Water bottle filled with oil balancing on a post in the car park

With a background in Emergency Medicine I’m the de facto medic in the Bureau. I get called on a lot to treat the local guard force as well as our Iraqi staff. It’s usually fairly benign stuff like heat exhaustion, or minor lacerations. Every once in a while I get some interesting trauma like the 2000 lbs cement block crushing the guard’s toe. On other occasions I get medical issues, like today when I was asked about someone’s wife’s hair abruptly falling out.

If left to their own devices you get some pretty interesting situations. My favorite has to be the guard that received first and second degree burns to his face while trying to light a stove burner from a cigarette. His friends smeared his face with toothpaste in an effort to alleviate the burn. It’s never dull.

The truth of the matter is that according to the locals, all of the good physicians are either dead or have fled the country. The result is a pretty poor level of care for the average Iraqi.

All Things Are Thus

I love this photo of an old set of scales caught between the shadow and the light. It looks as if the light is pushing down on one end of the scales.

Baghdad is a wonderful place for old things; things that have been used for decades but are still functional. After the first Gulf War it became difficult to purchase many items, so the Iraqis made use of what they already had. Objects are worn with age and use, gritty from endless exposure to dust and sun. The imperfections of age are everywhere highlighting each object’s unique identity, marked by use and time. All things everywhere I like this, it’s just so stark here.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Change of Seasons

Yesterday was the first cloudy day of the season. It was wonderful to look up and see the thin layer of brown tinged clouds, blocking out the morning sun; a welcome change from the searing temperatures and intensely bright sunlight. People tell me that in mid-December it's absolutely dreary here, bone chillingly cold and grey for days on end. It’s almost impossible to imagine right now.

The changing seasons illustrate one of the most basic principles of Zen Buddhism, at least within me. I never seem to be content with the days just the way they are. I’m always looking forward to the coming crispness of winter or the impending penetrating warmth of summer. Change will eventually come, it always does. In the meantime each day, like all things, should be savored on it’s own merits, not compared to some ideal that really doesn’t exist anyway.