Saturday, May 31, 2008

It's Not Pretty But It's Home... For A While

A photo from last trip. Baghdad ballet students gather around their teacher.

I made it into Baghdad yesterday morning after a day and a half of traveling. Coming back to the villa is in some respects like coming home; I’ve spent so much time here over the last fifteen months or so. Few things have changed and the media guys are telling me that it’s been remarkably quiet over the past several weeks, some say that they’ve never seen it this calm.

To me there’s a sense of creeping progress, by that I mean that Iraq seems to take two steps forward and then one large step back. I see the signs of development and progress all around; thriving road-side shops, clean, well-dressed kids walking to school, families playing in the zoo or the park. Then, however, the heavily armed convoys roll past reminding me of where I am. Masked militia thundering around in police vehicles, siren screaming, and threatening people with a pointed weapon that don’t readily yield.

It’s not pretty and it’s far from what I would call normal, but it’s home for the next several weeks.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Back At It Again

Back at it again. I’ll be in Baghdad in 30 some-odd hours. Posts and photos soon to follow.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, the day when this nation’s war dead are officially honored. For those around the world who are unfamiliar with how it is celebrated I offer this brief description.

I grew up in New England, the northeastern part of the United States punctuated with small, agrarian towns and deep traditions. Memorial Day for us always began with a parade down the center of our tiny town, the procession being lead by serious looking veterans of past wars carrying the national and state flags. The then-aged veterans were gleefully followed by all manner of celebratory vehicles; fire trucks, riding lawn mowers, and little red wagons pulled by happy parents. The high school band was usually present along with the Girls Scouts and Boy Scouts. The parade normally ended in the town cemetery where a brief service near the grave of one of the town’s fallen and accompanied by a lone trumpeter playing Taps off in the distance under the huge oak tree.

When I was younger, marching in the high school band it all seemed like a fun prelude to summer vacation. Now, almost thirty years on, after twenty years of military service around the world, the day takes on a different significance. The young faces of the scouts and band members and glowing, smiling, and carefree. To them the day more of a celebration of up-coming school vacation, a time for shorts, swimming pools and ice-cold soda. They can’t comprehend the meaning that it holds for those serious men carrying the flags at the front of the parade. Nor do they fathom that in less time than they realize that it may be them carrying our nation’s colors, or who’s grave the precession stops at to observe a moment of silence on this special day.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Reality Of The Moment

Early morning fog rises over an Atlanta neighborhood.

My wife and I sat out on the deck this morning over coffee, watching the sunrise through the Atlanta fog. She stared at the two groves of very rare, one year-old bamboo that we have lining our property and exclaimed, “I wish that I could see what this is going to look like in three years.” At that point our four year-old made his presence on the deck, and I began to think about my wife’s statement.

Would you be willing to leap ahead into the future, fast forward your life to get to an expected point? Can I just jump ahead a few years to when my son is already in school, or to the point when our back yard Japanese garden has taken full-form? I think that the answer is, no. Why? Because it doesn’t exist. The future is a myth, a construct of our minds, a dream, mist, nothing more.

There is no future, and for that matter there’s no past either. Neither exists. Doubt me? Then show them to me. The only thing that exists is right here, right now. I can close my eyes and feel it, it smells, it’s cold, it tastes bitter, it’s now. Nothing else exists outside of your mind. Don’t be fooled by this simple mind trick. Enjoy and live what you have here and now because in the flash of lightning it’s going to be gone and will never exist again.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Terminator

Today I did a “disruptive employee termination”, not the funniest job I’ve ever done. I get called to watch over a company’s management team as it “terminates” an employee that may have the propensity for violence or aggression. These jobs are not very challenging, and rarely develop into anything dramatic.

I laughed a little today because this particular employee was a very small woman that looked like someone’s great aunt. I think having an armed, 6’ 6”, 215 lbs protective agent there was a little over-kill, but hey, who am I to say?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Pushing Away From The Inevitable

I’m traveling back to the Middle East again soon. I’ve been doing this now for over a year and my biggest regret is that I haven’t made more of an effort to learn Arabic. When I first arrived I was keen on hiring a local teacher to assist me a couple of times a week, but I was quickly overcome by other events and it never panned out. I cringe now when I think where I would be if I had pursued Arabic as I had originally planned.

The lesson for me has been not to put things off until I have time, and then never get around to them. Do it now because life is passing by and isn’t about to wait. I’ve been very aggressive about pursuing those things that interest me; being a good father, a good husband, a fair bagpipe player, a better than average athlete, a fledgling photographer, a competent medic, and the list goes on. There isn’t enough time for it all in a single day, but little by little I chip away, and improve.

I look at my 10 year-old son, Connor, just learning to play the bagpipes. In a few years he’s going to leave me in rolling in the dust with young, nimble fingers and lightning fast birls. I don’t stand a chance; I know that. Until then though, I’ll continue to work hard on all of those things, pushing the inevitable away just one day at a time.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Struggle For Understanding

I’m not the best driver in the world; I’ll admit it, but I’ve probably had, however, more driver's training than 99.9 percent of the people on the roads. All of which has helped me recognize my limitations behind the wheel. Which makes me wonder how the twenty year-old kid that blew past me on the highway this afternoon; weaving in and out of traffic like a video game, knows his limitations? I’m pretty sure that he never attended a performance-driving course, so what makes him think that the world is his personal racetrack?

I struggle with understanding my rage at dangerous and inconsiderate drivers, those that put my family and I at risk because they believe they’re invincible. I understand that the problem lies within me, in other words, I’m the one that feels the anger, its my issue to grapple with. This is the great adventure of Zen, identifying life’s little snags and considering deeply the source of the emotions that they elicit. It’s a riddle or a kõan, something to be unraveled, deprogrammed; understanding then follows. The struggle continues.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Go Outside And Play

A low tree branch hangs over a slow-moving New England stream

I attended my 10 year-old son’s field trip yesterday and stood in absolute awe watching ten coach-style buses pull up at the location and unload hundreds of like-aged kids. The first thing that struck me was the absolute chaos that seemed ready to explode as the anxious and excited kids teamed everywhere while chaperons attempted to gain control. The “Army” in me was eager to take charge and put things in order, but I was only a by-stander on this trip so I bit my lip and watched with interest.

The second thing that I noticed was the physical condition of the kids. What the hell happened to gym class? When I was that age there might have been one child in the class that was “husky”. Coming off the bus, over 30 percent of them fit that chunky description. Throughout the day I witnessed the throng of hundreds sitting around the venue sucking on candy that they purchased from the gift shop and sucking down high-calorie soda. I know this is a sore topic in American culture, but this is the first time that I’ve actually witnesses it up-close.

I’m uncertain if the kids have gym class anymore, if they don’t it needs to be re-instated, and if they do, it’s a dismal failure and should be re-examined. That entire experience was a real eye opener and convinced me to redouble my efforts at monitoring my sons’ diets and exercise. “Go outside and play!”

Friday, May 16, 2008

Flowers Of The Forest

Wilted flowers sit in a plastic water bottle at the grave of a young soldier killed in the first Gulf War

I’m traveling this weekend, up in rainy Connecticut. I brought my pipes with me in hopes of finding some out of the way place where I could practice and not bother too many people. As I arrived at the hotel I noticed that the building sat right next to a cemetery… perfect!

I play piobaireachd on the highland bagpipes; sort of very old, “lamenty”, stuff meant to be played by a solo piper on a misty moor or an ancient castle abutment. The tune I’m currently working on is MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart’s Lament, which is an emotional piece that I often struggle to find the right depth of feeling.

Walking through the cemetery I discovered the emotion that the tune required. Stones marked with veterans of all of the 20th century’s wars, others stood over generations of entire families, stone angels kept vigil over the graves of lost children. The music flowed from the pipes, singing out over the garden of stone as people watched and listened from a distance. It was a good moment.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Cleaning Up

Installing a new front door on the house.

My parents visited this past weekend. It’s been years since they’ve visited me wherever I was in the world. I spent the week beforehand cleaning the yard and the house. We augmented the landscaping, and did a very thorough spring-cleaning. My wife accused me of trying to impress my parents, which grated against my Buddhist bones. I secretly believe that she made that statement on purpose.

I like neat and orderliness, and it’s always been that way for me. I don’t think that my ego is involved at all; at least that’s what I keep telling myself (Zen joke there). Of course with a 4 year-old running around it’s always a challenge to keep things in their place. I wonder sometimes what I’m doing to my son’s development by chasing after him making him pick-up everything that he casts aside, or clean up after every mishap or spill. No worries, my wife’s Type B personality more than balances my compulsions.

I’m reminded of the story of the young Zen monk who spends the day meticulously picking the fallen leaves from the rock garden, situated underneath a small tree. The head monk walks by and the student proudly displays his thoroughness. The old master walks over to the tree and gives it a good shake, and a handful of leaves gently fall on the pristine garden. “Better”, he says and moves on.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

You Can't Argue With Results

In my quest for an ever-more healthy lifestyle I habitually read Mark Sisson’s site Mark’s Daily Apple. As a fellow blogger, I can see that Mark puts an immense amount of work into the site, but as the title suggests, it’s packed every day with great nutrition advice. As an example, Mark linked to another great site,, which is also loaded with even more great information as well as a nifty nutrition calculator.

I’ve been a competitive athlete for almost 40 years and I’ve always played under the assumption that your training results are 80 percent dictated by what you do on the field, court, or in the gym. I paid little or no attention to diet, easily consuming 3,000 calories a day, limiting fat where I could, and the rest just fell into place.

Lately the elite fitness and dietary world has taken my life-long assumption and turned it on its head. Twenty percent of your gains come from the gym and the rest… your diet!!! I loudly cried “bullshit” when I first heard this, but sadly it’s true. My “thrash yourself until you can’t stand-up”, philosophy had me doing 14-18-plus hours of work a week either swimming, biking or running, to achieve competitive form.

Now I’m heavily into CrossFit, still thrashing myself, but rarely for more than 30 minutes a day, and my diet is closely controlled along a Paleo or Zone model. The results have been stunning as I’m putting up overall fitness numbers that I haven’t seen for twenty years. I’m running faster and lifting more than I ever have, all the while with plenty of energy to excel through the day without the dreaded insulin spikes of my past workout regime. Hey, you can’t argue with results.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Nothing Special

Magical moments come often in life, the issue is that most of the time we’re not paying attention and completely miss them. You could make an argument that life itself is just one huge “magical moment’ and sadly we’re sleeping right through it, hoping and planning for some future event or dwelling on the past.

I sat out on our deck last night watching the last rays of the day peek out through the tall forest trees. The light was a wonderful amber color, filtered by the springtime leaves. Bamboo plants swayed in the gentle breeze and somewhere in the forest the wind chime subtly made its presence known. I remember thinking that the sun sets like this every day, and there’s really nothing special about this one. It’s just that life slowed down enough for me to stop and take notice. Ahhh, maybe that’s the secret.