Sunday, January 27, 2008

Hail To The Chief, Not Really

I watched some of the U.S. election coverage on the news this past weekend, and I really can’t get jazzed about any of it. To be honest, I simply don’t care. I’ve contended that at the end of the day, whoever is sitting in the Oval Office just doesn’t have that big of an impact on my immediate life. I wake up, go to work, play with my sons, and enjoy my life with my wife, and I’ll continue to do that no matter who is sitting in the chair.

I realize that there are a myriad of issues involved in this election period, but how many of them really effect my family? Not many, and those that do we handle and address as a family. I don’t need the President to solve my problems; I’d just as soon do that myself.

I realize that is sounds sacrilegious. It should matter to me who holds the most powerful office in the world, but I have just as much interest in the NFL playoffs. I’d like to see the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl, but if they don’t, I’ll get by. It’s just another competition where we have our favorites that we’d like to see come out on top, but if they don’t we’ll get on with our lives much like we did yesterday and the day before that.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Shaving and Flip Turns

A young boy watched a Buddhist monk shaving his head, and inquired, "why do you shave your head?" The monk answered, "To make myself ugly". At first I thought this was one of those tricky kōans (in fact it is), but I quickly realized the obvious truth in the monk's statement.

Now in my mid-forties I struggle with this a lot, spending inordinate amounts if time in the gym keeping what inevitably will be a decaying body fit and lean. I ask myself how much of my effort is driven by ego? Endless miles running and biking, following the black line in the pool, weights, and now a healthy skin care regime. To what end?

It all balances on the "pinhead of intention". Is this effort to fuel an already over-active ego, or rather simply for health and quality of life? This is my kōan.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Sound of Silence

Peace and tranquility

It snowed here in Atlanta. As a matter of fact, it's been falling all day. Quiet and grey, snow has a way of bringing a muted hush-ness to the world that it falls upon. So many haiku have been written about this moment.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Two Hours Waiting On The Rock

Droplets of rain move along a palm leaf.

On my last day in Dubai I ended up taking a taxi to one of the large malls to kill some time. Once I was done strolling around I returned to the mall taxi stand to get a ride back to the hotel that was some distance away. Because of the heavy rain city traffic was at a stand still and almost 200 people were patiently waiting in line for arriving taxis.

I was horrified as I joined the endless trail of people and waited, moving slowly forward, inches at a time. For almost two hours I stood there watching my fellow ride-less friends. I was soon struck by the fact that with me were other men, women, old, young, toddlers, teens, Muslims, Christians, Hindu, Brits, Indians, Americans, Pakistanis, mini-skirts, hijabs... Everyone was neatly waiting in line, smiling at one another and chatting where they could. Looks were exchanged with strangers accompanied by smiles and shrugs of "what can you do?. It was all perfectly orderly and civil. Why can't the rest of the world function like that?

Were all on this spinning chunk of rock together. Why can't we just accept that fact, make friends with those around us, and offer smiles and encouragement where we can?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


An Iraqi physician sticks his head to say hello.

Mindfulness: paying attention to everything you experience. How did breakfast taste this morning? What did the water sound like as it ran into the sink while your shaved? This is the great trick of life. So many events and experiences go completely unnoticed as our minds wonder to and fro on their own little self-indulgent journeys. Where are we right now? What's happening around us?

I've tried to load my life up with little reminders to pay attention:

- I carried four quarters in my normally changeless pocket to remind me of people that didn't have four quarters. It allowed me something to give to those that had none.

- I try to leave the last small bite of food on my plate to remind me of those that are not eating this day.

- I switched to eating European style with my fork in my left hand so that I would consider each piece of food and all of the effort that went into getting it to me.

I believe that it's important to be mindful, to pay attention. Otherwise much of this great gift of life simply passes us by unnoticed and unappreciated.

It's Raining... Of Course

Little Iraqi girl stares into the camera. She has known nothing but war and conflict her entire life.

I'm in Dubai for the next day or so on my way back to Atlanta. Driving around the city last night I was struck by how it reminded me of some parts of Miami, albeit everything is much newer. It's as if someone told you to build the city of Miami in only 10 years, but you have unlimited funds to do it. Oh yea, and toss in a handful of ornate mosques and world-class buildings.

Even on a short drive I passed the world's only 6-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab, as well as the earth's tallest building, also under construction but still disappearing into the clouds. There are towering cranes everywhere you look and signs advertising developers, and new building plans. The efforts goes on 24-hours a day. Lamborghinis, Range Rovers, high-end Audis and BMWs cruise along the neon-lit highways, hiding chicly-dressed people heading out for a late night.

I'm planning a trip outside of the city this afternoon; a desert safari to a Bedouin camp for a traditional Arab diner. Of course its raining.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Iraqi Hospital

Filming in the neo-natal room of the hospital. The equipment was ancient and you felt desperate watching the little guy struggling inside.

Today we visited an Iraqi Red Crescent hospital in the city. The Director was kind enough to show us around and let us shoot. We spent about 40 minutes in the maternity wing going from room to room talking with the visibly nervous new mothers.

Things I learned:

- Fathers wait outside the delivery rooms and sisters or mothers accompany the expecting mother.
- No epidurals here. They don't have the equipment for them.
- Even while lying in a hospital bed all of the women are dressed in the traditional head scarves.
- There are more guns in the hospital than you would like to think.
- The hospital is desperate for equipment.
- The incubator for the neo-natals had to be 50 years old.

I leave tomorrow. Next stop, Dubai.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Snow Day

Hardly worth a blog post, but it snowed here in Baghdad this morning. I can think of no other place on earth were it can go from 130 degrees to snow. Of course the Iraqis were beside themselves running about in ski parkas, scarves and flip flops. The correspondents had to file a report on the event, which pissed them off to no end. "Snow is not news!", one of them decried. Nonetheless all of the other bureaus were carrying it, so...

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Right Speech

A used tea bag hangs from a wiring over a Baghdad street.

I try to live my life using the Buddhist precepts of the Noble Eightfold Path, also known in Japanese as Hasshōdō. They are...

1. Right view
2. Right intention

Ethical conduct
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood

Mental discipline
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration

The word "Right" is a translation of the Pali word sammã and carries the same sense as "perfect" or "ideal".

Of these I seem to struggle with Right speech the most. Sitting around the table last night in the bureau the gossip was flying fast and furious as it does. I knew that the "Right" thing to do was to keep my mouth closed and smile, but I found myself participating in the melee along with the rest, all the while knowing it was wrong.

I've spent the morning examining my actions last night and came to the conclusion that I was dragged into the gossip frenzy by my ego. I wanted to be seen as knowing some valuable nugget of knowledge and thusly adding to my self-worth or self-esteem.

This is the ugly side of Zen Buddhism; the unpleasant and vile things that you uncover about yourself as you continue along the path. Zen is not all about dripping water and symmetric waves carved in pristine sand. It's ugly, painful, and in-your-face, but then again so is life.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Fear and Wanderlust

I have one fear in life, which I've had for as long as I can remember. I'm terrified of waking up one day, seated in a nursing home at the end of my time and suddenly realizing that I have wasted the greatest gift of all, a human life. I can't imagine the nightmare of knowing that you've reached the end of your time on earth and have done absolutely nothing with it.

We all have a finite amount of days to roam the earth (or heavens) and make of life what we will. When those days are up there's nothing anyone or anything can do for us. I came to this realization as a little boy and have spent my entire life running from this nightmare of ending up like that. For me the solution is to travel; to travel to as many places as I can and see as many things as I can possibly devour.

My very first attraction to my latter-to-be-wife was the fact that she had climbed Mt. Fuji and Mt Kilimanjaro. I was awed that this young, single woman struck out and traveled to remote places and had done what others write about or watch on the Discovery Channel. Here was someone that was living her life.

I'm saddened a little that my wanderlust wife now sits at home chasing our soon-to-be 4 year-old while I'm out still fending off my fear. Soon, I think that our son will be old enough to travel comfortably and we'll start doing so as a family. I only hope that he develops the same 'fear' that I grew up with.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Trust me, I'm a doctor

Baghdad street dogs relaxing in the morning sun

Iraqi medicine really winds me up. I had one of the contract guards come to me with what I easily determined was a mild sinus infection. He had previously visited one of the local "physicians" who had given him some tablets and offered to give him an injection as well. I looked at the tablets and discovered that they were diuretics designed to make him urinate, reportedly lowering his overall fluid level and making the pressure in his head go away. I told him that was probably the stupidest thing that I ever heard and advised him to throw the tablets away. Buddha only knows what the injection was supposed to be for. I did find out that they have to pay cash for pills and injections, which now starts to make sense.

If you're ever sick in Iraq, or any other similar country, be very wary of someone that is calling him/herself a "doctor". For me, I'll go to the ends of the earth to seek out a current or ex-Army Special Forces medic in whatever county I happen to be in. They're always superbly equipped and their medical skills are the best in the world.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Dark Humor

Iraqi kids love to have their picture taken.

We were reporting from the streets of one of Baghdad's neighborhoods this afternoon, next to a freshly built playground. I remarked to my partner, as we were watching the kids kick a soccer ball around, "most of these kids have known nothing in their lives but war". He quipped with a bit of dark Scottish humor, "...but look, they got a playground out of it".

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Illusion of Security

A chair at a roadside checkpoint sits abandoned. Iraqis put cardboard on them at night to keep themselves warm.

The city of Baghdad is teeming with checkpoints. They're on almost every intersection, and one would like to think that it's all part of a highly coordinated master security plan. The truth of the matter is that they're not. They're haphazard, disparate points that give the illusion of security, nothing more. Anyone with an automatic weapon and some semblance of a uniform can stop traffic at will and make a show of "checking" credentials. Most checkpoints are maned by; Iraqi Police, U.S military, Iraqi National Guard, private security, Iraqi Army, Concerned Local Citizens (U.S-backed militia), and Minister of Interior (Iranian-backed militia). You can imagine the ensuing confusion pulling up to one of these, especially at night.

There's no telling who's manning these impromptu traffic stops. For all anyone knows it may be an insurgent looking for someone to "pick on". Pulling up, opening the car's armored door, and announcing to the world that you're a westerner is never fun, and in many instances not very healthy either.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Waiting For The Inevitable

One of the bureaus brought a truck into the compound yesterday with a huge cargo container on the back. It made for some interesting pictures as it was negotiating the narrow streets and low electrical wires.

Jumping the Shark in Iraq

An elderly Arab man makes his way down a dusty neighborhood street.

The American elections are dominating the news this week, and we've basically been told to "stand down" unless it's a major breaking story. I'm certain that all of the other American outlets are in the same situation.

Overall media coverage of the war in Iraq has fallen off precipitously. One of the correspondents told me that a year ago all of the networks were giving an average of 30 minutes a week to Iraq stories. Now it's more like four or five. Another of the staff likened American viewership of Iraq-based news as, "America's reality show that no one wants to watch anymore". Terms that are being bandied about the newsroom are, "surge burnout" and "jumping the shark". This last one I had to Google to understand it. Oddly, it was a Scotsman that used it in context.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

There's No Cold Like Desert Cold

Symmetrical bars and beams that make up the facade of an Iraqi villa

This is my first winter in the Middle East. I've been to the southern California desert before in January and walked away from that with the theory that there is no cold as bitter as "desert cold". I remember shivering uncontrollably in the pre-dawn darkness, facing eastward, almost willing the sun to come up, praying for relief from a biting cold.

Iraq is milder. It's cold, but not unbearable; Iraqis would tell you differently though. They're bundled up with ski parkas and hats pulled down over their ears, all the while still plodding around in open-toed sandals. They don't do cold well at all. I grew up in New England, and my Scottish compatriot and I are reveling in the respite of the jet engine-like heat that dominates here most of the year.

What astounds me is that even with the Iraqis' great sensitivity to cold not a single villa has accommodations for heat. Even the most modest home will have air conditioning, and thank Buddha for that, but the most lavish palace is void of a heating system. Instead the Iraqis rely on the mobile electric heaters, plugging one into every electrical outlet available. This practice causes havoc on the 1950s-ish home electrical wiring. It's almost a game with the locals to see how many power strips they can daisy-chain together to fire up more heaters. Everywhere you look are scorched power strips, laying next to their fresh replacement plugged into the matrix. Needless to say, we have a fire extinguisher in every room in the villa and January has become "Fire Prevention Month" here.

Been Away

Old, well-used wheelbarrow sits in the dust. This one is in relatively pretty good shape; it still has a wheel on it.

I realize that I've been away from the blog for a bit. I hate posting without putting up some photos, and to be honest I've been very lazy with my camera lately. I'd like to claim that I've been so busy that I haven't had time to take a single photo, but that's just not the case.

Christmas passed here in Baghdad just like most days do here. The bureau was busy doing "lives" while at the same time preparing a nice holiday dinner for everyone. It's the only day of the year when the entire staff sits around the table and shares a meal, one which is made by various members from all over the world. It was truly an eclectic experience. Again, I'm remiss for not having my camera handy.

All is well here in Iraq. We visited the 98th Combat Support Hospital (CSH) the other day, which for those that aren't familiar it would be akin to a medium sized hospital in the U.S. Of the 15+ soldiers that were admitted to the facility for care not a single one of them was there for "battlefield injuries". Most were be treated for various skin infections due to cuts and an animal bite. I take that as good news.

I'm hoping to get out today with my camera so I'll have some photos to put up in the next couple of days. Best to all.