Saturday, February 23, 2013

83 Percent Done with My Adventure in Afghanistan



Greetings all,

I have to apologize. It has been a while since I last wrote and provided you with an update. I was getting quite good at that.

Perhaps you are wondering why there is such a huge gap between my 75% complete update and my 83% percent update. How did 8% take so long?

Well, around January I put in for a 90-day extension. With the economy in the states the way it is, I figured what amounts to 45 more days in Afghanistan would not break me. I pass the all-important “tax-exempt day”, when a huge chunk of my pay out here becomes tax-free, and get a few more paychecks. So even though it meant not seeing friends and family, and not being home for baseball’s Opening Day, I came to the conclusion I’d stay for a bit longer.

On that note, however, my replacement is here already. They shipped him out before my extension was approved. So he is here and now I am staying for a bit. This works to our advantage, as he will be quite learned on how to do things by the time he assumes my job on his own.

Also, the long turnover means I should have no problem walking away. “Should” being the operative word. When you work on a job for 12 or more hours every day, you tend to get attached. After all, the job was my baby for the year. I have to understand that the job is soon not to be mine to care about. Although I am sure when I get back to the states, I will be fine, but in the time until, I have to work on the art of letting go.

I’ve learned a lot out here in the last few months. The officer I work for is a business major-type of thinker, so I’ve learned a lot about concepts of leadership, management, and supervision. We’ve also talked a lot about processes and process management, which I have had experience in before, but am able to really make it work out here. According to my boss, we run our shop more like a business than a military office, and I like that. We have the ability to think, create, and show out-of-the-box initiative. Something I haven’t been able to do in previous jobs in the states. Hopefully someday.

Outside of work, in the hour or two I have every night, I have been writing a lot. I am now on page 110 of my first novel. When I am not penning updates from the great beyond, I work on the novel a little bit every night. It is almost there. I hope to have the rough draft done before I leave, then pick it up a few months later to get a fresh perspective and editorial eye.

I am also trying to read more. I finished a book about warfare in the Star Wars universe (the closest I will get to reading about war while in a warzone). Now I am reading a true story about a baseball player who became a CIA spy after his career was over. Very interesting.

Now more than ever I am looking at what I am going to do when I get back to the states. With deep government budget cuts on the horizon, I have to seriously consider whether or not I have a future working for the government. I’ve saved quite a bit out here, and I would love to go back to school to train and network (the most important part) for a new career, but not sure if the money I saved is enough for both living and paying for school. Lately, I have been thinking about researching and going to a really good business school, not just one in Florida. Regardless, I have to apply and that takes more time. Hence the importance of finding a job to live on before I go back to school.

In a perfect world, I would like to work in my current field while working on an MBA. Then after that, go for the PhD in history and complete my work on the Kurdish military. I hate to say it, but I have delayed too much working on that plan out here. And bad internet connections don’t help. It is incredibly frustrating looking for a job when the internet connection out here is half of what the average connection is in the states. Another reason to get what I can as soon as I can and then plan more extensively when I get back to the states.

As far as a place to lay my head, unless I have a guaranteed job before I land stateside, I am thinking about looking on craigslist (if the internet gods agree) and contacting anyone in Tampa who needs a roommate. Because I have no idea where I will end up at this point, I can’t get tied down with a lease. As bad as living like a vagabond sounds, it’s a small step in the right direction. Unless of course a job comes through, then I will be headed to wherever that is.

I feel like I have written much of the above in previous updates. But that’s life in Afghanistan. Not much changes out here. Especially when work dominates the day as much as it does out here. But as I mentioned, that work is almost done.

And so wraps up the 83% update (or 5/6 for the factional folks). The next step is the 90% update. Then 99%.

Then home, wherever that may be.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Reading "Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare" while in Afghanistan



"If there is a bright center of the universe, you are on the planet it's farthest from.” – Aspiring youth Luke Skywalker

For most of recorded human history, Afghanistan has been a crossroads.  A Graveyard of Empires, a place where the clash of civilizations between Asia, India, Russia, and the Persian and Muslim Empires has defined life and culture.

Stories of Afghanistan have been told, re-told, and embellished. To some, Afghanistan is a place of great tribal pride and survival in a rough climate and rougher surroundings. For others, it is a backwards wasteland 150 years behind the rest of the world.

For present-day Americans, Afghanistan is a place where the US military has shed their blood, sweat, and tears. It is a place of bullets, guns, and improvised explosive devices.

It is a place of war.

“You're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” - Obi Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker

Despite working with the military for nearly 15 years, and currently finishing up a voluntary year in Afghanistan, I don’t read books about military or war very often. I don’t need to be reminded about tactics, intelligence, or operations. They are part of my everyday work day.

But that’s not to say I won’t read a book about war if one catches my eye.

Especially if it’s about Star Wars.

Written by Jason Fry and Paul R. Urquhart, Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare is the latest “guide” book written on the Star Wars universe. While this is the second guide book I own, this is the first I have read cover to cover.

When buying Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare, I read a review on Amazon.com that compared the book to a college text book. That comparison is correct. The Essential Guide to Warfare is a synopsis of over 4,000 years of machines, strategies, and personalities that put the “war” in Star Wars. There are not only essays and descriptions of droids, ships, and weapons, but also stories and narratives of war and conflict from different perspectives over different eras, some more familiar than others.



Among my favorites, for example, is a picture of the Ewoks fighting the Stormtroopers during the Battle of Endor. In the picture, the Ewoks are not the cuddly teddy bears of Return of the Jedi lore. According to the picture, they’re little savage monsters, snarling and aggressive, tearing Stormtroopers limb from limb. Accompanying the illustration is insight from a surviving Stormtrooper, who writes about the Ewoks using poison-tipped arrows and other primitive yet deadly weapons that tipped the scale from the technologically-advanced Empire.

The insight, narratives, and added perspectives from other characters add to the complexity of the personalities in Star Wars. They aren’t seen as just “bad guys” and “good guys”. They are different people, cultures, or political parties struggling to get by in a galaxy of thousands of species and beings, not much different from Afghanistan’s crossroads of cultures. As in Afghanistan, there are those that are power-hungry, but sometimes even they have their reasons. The thought, for example, that the Emperor wanted to strengthen the galaxy under military rule in preparation of the impending Yuuzhan Vong invasion he foresaw is an interesting defense to what is usually perceived as an era of tyranny.

Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare also puts the movies and other mainstream Star Wars adventures into perspective as just small parts of eons of struggle, fighting, and war. Sort of like the US involvement in Afghanistan. American heroes today are only a blip on the radar after eons of kingdoms, invasions, and conquests.

Unfortunately similar to a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away, our present world seems stuck in an endless cycle of violence and war. Different philosophies drive groups to take action or non-action or exercise power over someone or something else. In the end of the Warfare book, the Jedi are in hiding as a war between the descendants of the Empire and descendants of the Sith rages throughout the galaxy. One could derive religious-fanaticism, conservativism, totalitarianism, Genghis Khan-type militantism, democracy, and many other philosophies from Star Wars.

Reading Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare, I was amazed by the lack of peace. Sitting in a warzone, I couldn’t help but think what that might mean for us. Many of the same entities and philosophies exist on Earth and specifically here in Afghanistan. To get meta, what does it mean for our society that this book on warfare in the Star Wars galaxy spans thousands of years with very little mentions of eras of peace?

Granted, a book called “Star Peace: Flowers Planted During the Era of Jedi Meditation” probably wouldn’t sell, but what does it mean that the Star Wars fans who wrote the book or contributed to its creation didn’t even create an epoch of peace? Not even in the end of the story. Does that mean they have given up hope as they fill their fantasy galaxy with war and conflict? Or are they merely projecting, trying to hide their natural human tendencies for war in George Lucas’s fictional playground?

The last narrative, written 137 years after the battle of Yavin and the destruction of the first Death Star, and 4,000 years after the first recorded battle in the Star Wars galaxy, sums the book up well. In the final pages, Admiral Gar Stazi reflects on war and the essence of being. He concludes that as war is inevitable, it’s those who engage in the act of war and their ability to be war’s master, not its slave, that counts. Powerful stuff. Perhaps even our own generals, admirals, and other war leaders agree.

As for me, as battle-weary vagabond Jengo Fett said, “I’m just a simple man trying to make my way in the universe”.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Learning my creative process while 8,000 miles away



When I was getting ready to come over to Afghanistan, I thought I would make my year over here into my own personal Walden. Like Thoreau, I thought I would buckle down and create at a ludicrous pace. I would write every night, watch movies, read a book every two weeks, and study the first four seasons of Saturday Night Live.

Well, I kinda got some things done.

I did write for a few good-sized websites, I have composed more than 100 pages in my first novel, I've put together my first little comedy book, and I know now how to write by night light while roommates are sleep.

But besides that, I learned a few things about myself and my creative process over the last 11 months.

1) Count Sheep Because Sleep Counts

Good ideas flow faster when my brain is awake. My minimum threshold for great ideas is usually around six hours of sleep. Anything beyond six and I am at most creative. If I sleep less than six, but more than five, I'm ok, but getting the creative juices takes some cajoling. If I get less than five hours of sleep, my brain usually only fires on half the amount of pistons it needs. No creative functions are on. I can survive throughout the day, and probably even do well at work, but my post-work well of independent creation is bone dry.

Back home, I used exhaustion as a muse. I could create late at night when the creative process of my dreams had half taken over my conscious thoughts. Here, however, with night lights on, and after 12-15 hours of work, the creative spark doesn't come while my eyes are half-glazed staring at the illuminated laptop monitor.

Also, the more consecutive days of less than six hours of sleep, the less creative the days get. Without weekends, there are no days to "re-charge", so I have to take control of the process if I want to create. Some days might have less time in order for the next few days to be more creative.

2) Watch the Work Wear

Looking at spreadsheets, working long-term tasks and projects, and staring at computers all day puts a definite dent and damper on my creative process. It's tough to jump from spreadsheet staring to creative wonder in moments. When the mind is used to looking at a computer screen and processing data with the straight-laced, in-the-box side of the brain, it takes time to switch gears to the other side of the mind. It's even worst when I'm working on a big project. Some nights the switch never takes place and I end up surfing web sites until the eye-bleeding hours of night. Then I give up and go to sleep, often too late, effecting the next day (see section on sleep). The worst is when the long hours of work leave longstanding stains in my brain and the images of work permeate my subconscious and slip into my dreams.

3) Influence of Intake

As my main creative outlet is writing, the words I read tend to have a large indirect impact on the words I write. Back in grad school, as I wrote my master's thesis on the Kurdish Peshmerga, on my professor's advice to read something unrelated, I read Tolkien's The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. To this day, I think those books had a profound effect on the "story" of my own subject.

These days, I still see books I read swaying my writing, especially my long-term projects. Most of the fall and now through winter I have been hard at work on my novel. In November, I was also reading Brian Spaeth's Flight of a Super Airplane, a whimsical, lighthearted, comedy adventure featuring the author's vision of Bruce Willis. Reading Spaeth, I felt the words bounce out of my own fingers, twisting and curving, and making somewhat of the same pattern of wordology that makes Spaeth's works so unique. Of course, that's not a complete coincidence, as I've been a fan of his style since I cameoed on his blog many, many moons ago.

Now I am reading Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare by Jason Fry. While I am a huge fan of Fry's work both in the Star Wars universe and on Faith and Fear in Flushing, one of my favorite sports blogs, his work here is much more of a history book of war in the Star Wars universe. While interesting and engaging, my own writing isn't flipping and bouncing as it was while reading Spaeth. It's much more serious, which is what one might expect when reading a war book, albeit a fictional one.

4) Interaction and Inspiration

I never realized how important other people are to my creative writing process. I'm the type of person who tells people about my creative projects. When they get excited about your endeavors, I really believe people's encouragement can push you through even the most treacherous slog. They are the cheerleaders, the fans, and the harness that keeps you walking that mental tightrope of a major creative project. When I am solely on myself for encouragement and I am my only cheerleader, my voice tends to get hoarse quicker and my pom poms tend to not stay in the air as long. I have to resort to reading my old blog posts and watching my old videos for inspiration, which I'll admit can be a hoot and a bit of a shot in the arm.

5) Peers and Pals

Along the same path as inspiration from others, knowing what creative projects others are doing also drives me to create. Especially when I talk shop with other writers. While I was in Kabul, I met with a few people who were writers. Almost daily, we would talk shop and I would share some of my work with them. Their approval pushed me to write more. Here on my new base, I haven't met any writers at all. I don't really even talk to that many people as the building I work in is segmented in alcove closed-door offices. And then there is the fact that Army people tend not to talk to too many civilians on a personal level and I am surrounded by Army folks. Nice folks, but I have no idea if they are creative or not. I definitely don't see people running around making the second Flash Vs The Aliens.

6) Conclude the Conclusion

If many of these factors were identifiable in the states, they are even double, if not triple more so felt in Afghanistan. Here the hours are longer, the work is more stressful, the spare time more sparse, and the support farther away. I never thought it would be easy and although I have gotten a lot done in the last year, I never thought it would be this difficult.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Negativity made you speak when you spoke



One thing my trip out here has taught me is perspective. People in Afghanistan have nothing. A few months ago, I saw a guy with one arm and no legs pushing himself across the street on a skateboard. How he got the skateboard, I don’t know. He reminded me of the potato sack guy in Todd Browning’s cinematic classic “Freaks”.  There is no reason to complain in America if that man with little chance of success is managing to exist in a third world country. Maybe he complains in his native tongue of Dari. But I bet he is too busy trying to survive.

As we come up on Super Bowl weekend, I am reminded how America is land of gluttony and excess. Writer Joe Posnanski recently wrote about the magnitude of the SuperBowl and its "bigness". The SuperBowl is indicative of America as it is the most American gluttony and excess sporting event in the world. After all, it is only a football game. Yet because of its gluttony, it is a symbol of America and an unofficial national holiday.

A few months ago, I heard a commercial for cream cheese filled pizza crust. Cream cheese filled pizza crust has to be the SuperBowl of food. If that’s your contribution to the world, I feel for you. I really do. I hope the R&D person who came up with that coaches little league or volunteers in a soup kitchen or something. Please don’t tell me creating such a gluttonous monstrosity fulfills some kind of sense of being for them. Only in America, I guess.

We owe it to the world to stop being complainers. It’s not a good look. We are to the world what Kim Kardashian is to the average American. Curvy spoiled prima donnas who live the good life and comparatively don’t work for it. And we put out some really bad home movies, something Kim knows a thing or two about.

Our poor are 50,000 times richer than third world poor. There are common tribal people in Afghanistan who believe sick people have the devil in them and they should see a holy figure and pray the sickness away. If you live, God thought it was a good idea. If you don’t, well, God thought it was a good idea for you to die. In America, we’ve pretty much agreed that doctors and the health care system, however costly and unwieldy it is, is a pretty good idea for keeping people alive.

So since we have these great health care capabilities, we should be thankful. We should be striving to make the world a better place in added years we have been given. Instead, what do we do? We complain about the weather, people in line, how we can’t get good cell phone reception, and how we have 1,298 channels and find anything good to watch. All while eating our pizza with the cream cheese filled crust.

We are cynical about other Americans all the time. “Our society is going to fail, people suck, blah, blah, blah.” But to me, that’s not really helping. Instead of saying “people suck”, how about being one of those who don’t? Or do you automatically include yourself in the good people group? To me, people who are doing good things don’t have time to be cynical, like bad guys don’t have time to work at soup kitchens. Good people aren’t complainers because they are too busy plotting their next good thing.

When we complain, it’s like we have given up. We have given in to the obstacles that we see. Whether we can’t overcome bureaucracy, can’t get a date with the girl or guy we want, or can’t read this because web sites such as this are blocked in most repressive regimes, if we give up, we have given up.

Worst of all, many of the people out here have given up on the Afghans as well. I talked to one person recently who said he had no idea why he was here as the Afghans are going to have a civil war anyway when we leave. That’s a horrible attitude. Horrible. What about the little girls that can now go to school? What about the shop keeper whose store can stay open without risk of bombing in Kabul? What about the people who I’ve written about before who can sing whatever kind of music they want with fear of death? What about the people who are living as free as they want here and don’t have to worry about the Taliban or other extremism? Does he think they want a civil war?

We need to stop complaining. It’s not a good look.

And put down the cream-cheese filled pizza. It’s not good for you. And I bet it doesn’t even taste good.