Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Still Readjusting


Well, I’ve been home almost five weeks, and in the office for four of those weeks.  Not surprisingly, it’s had its ups and downs.

The ups – being back with family and friends, vastly improved quality of living, normal work hours.  Driving the Black Beast up and down US 50, belching diesel exhaust as I go.  Sushi.  Beer.

The big downer – not being part of the mission, the war effort, anymore.  It’s kind of like the “Six Degrees of Separation” game.  While downrange, I was much closer to the main effort, with a great feeling of directly supporting the warfighters.  It was especially so at IJC, the operational commander, the three-star controlling the six Regional Commands and in direct contact with troops in the field.  The move to Bagram removed me a bit more from the pointy end of the spear, and, yes, we were a bunch of IT geeks “in the rear with the gear” who seldom if ever ventured off-base.  But we were forward with the warfighters, with a distinct feeling of accomplishment.

You may not know it, but I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret … “official” Washington DC is populated by douche bags.  Lots and lots of them.  I could start with the do-nothing slackers on Crapitol Hill.  The scumbag K Street lobbyists.  The hide-bound bureaucrats of every stripe.  The (un)civil servants who find a way to not do their jobs and still not get fired.

Or I could shift focus to the National Security apparatchiks.  In defense of our country, and in furtherance of the war effort, they will staunchly defend the requirement to use the right font on your staff summary sheet to accompany a PowerPoint slide deck to tell a member of the Senior Executive Service why you need to spend money on IT infrastructure improvements.  But your briefing will go nowhere unless you get the staff summary sheet right.

Pardon me, douche bag par excellence, but did you know that young Soldiers and Marines are being killed and maimed in shitty little villages in Helmand and Kunar Province while you sit at your cozy desk eating bon bons and wielding your all-powerful administrative scepter?  The real world, the world where people fight and die every day, doesn’t give a shit about font size.  They care about delivering the best possible support to those trigger-pullers so they can put warheads on foreheads.  And that, in part, equates to providing a resilient IT infrastructure to deliver intelligence when and where it’s needed.

So it is that, while I’m far from clinically depressed, I do find myself saddened at times about being back here.  A very distant relative of survivor’s guilt.  I’m back home drinking beer while my comrades are eating the Afghan dust.  This malaise is compounded by the realization that deployment is really a young person’s venture.  They don’t need old farts like me as much as I feel the need to fight the good fight.

I’ve gone back and re-read a lot of these posts recently.  They provide an interesting, and at times frightening, insight into my state of mind.  They show the emotional roller coaster which reflected my mood and spirits at the time.  The first two months at IJC were a more frenetic time, closer to the edge, and the writing reflects that.  The four months at Bagram were, in comparison, more laid back, more removed from the fight, despite the periodic rocket attacks.  And I was able to write about the silly stuff, the things we did for amusement, rather than fling f-bombs at the Supreme Court and the Westboro Baptist Church.

Life goes on.  I think I’ll get us some sushi tonight.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Whaaaa? I Can’t Hear You!


Thursday night ended the triptych of post-deployment concerts at Ram’s Head.  I think it ended my accompanied concert-going for a while too.

First things first … it was an amazing show, more than I dared anticipate.  We walked in right at 8, and Stick Men were already on stage and playing.  Originally comprised of ex-King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto and Tony Levin and Michael Bernier on Chapman Stick (hence the name Stick Men … get it?), Bernier moved on and was ably replaced by Marcus Reuter on touch guitar.  During the 45-minute set of their own material, Levin let the cat out of the bag.  After their set, the Adrian Belew Power Trio would play a set of their own stuff, and finally everyone would converge on the stage for the King Crimson set.  Holy crap, a Crim-head’s fantasy!  For their finale, Stick Men played a piece from their Soup disc, four movements from The Firebird Suite.  Igor Stravinsky never sounded so good.

Then the Power Trio.  Adrian Belew was accompanied by Julie Slick on bass, and replacing her brother Eric on drums was Tobias Ralph.  Belew commented that Julie was “really slick on bass.”  Nice play on words, Ade, but she wasn’t slick.  She was ferocious.  She kicked ass, pure and simple.  I hadn’t listened to much of the Trio’s material before, but after last night, I need to become more familiar with it.  The phrase “power trio” really sums up their approach.  Both bands, but especially the Power Trio, were short on lyrics and heavy on instrumentals … magnificent instrumentals from virtuoso musicians.

Next up … Belew announces that he, Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto (three three former King Crimson band-mates) will, for the first time ever, play as a trio.  And they launched right into Crimson’s Three of a Perfect Pair.  The Crimson material never stopped after that.  A couple more tunes, then Marcus Reuter returned to the stage and they launched into Red, a blistering guitar-focused instrumental.  Then the rest of the Power Trio came back on-stage and we were treated to a reincarnation of the famed Double Trio, with two drummers, two bass guitarists (well, sometimes it was one on bass and one on the Stick), and two amazingly talented guitarists.  Interestingly, although Levin and Belew introduced the songs for their respective bands, not a word of introduction was spoken during this part of the show.  We Crim-heads didn’t need to be told what they were playing.

Interspersed among spirited renditions of such classics as Frame by Frame, Elephant Talk, Neurotica and Indiscipline, they snuck in Conundrum, their mind-blowing drum duet.  Finally, the double trio went through the “end-of-set-walk-off-the-stage” drill until the ceaseless applause brought them back for the encore.  It could only be one song, I thought.  And I wasn’t disappointed, as the first notes of Thela Hun Ginjeet brought me to my feet.  Oh yeah.

I’ve got a collection of Crimson concert recordings spanning 1982 to 2009.  Deep down in my heart of hearts, I’d worried about Belew and Levin getting older and less nimble, about Belew’s voice giving it up.  But they were in top form, their performances as dazzling as ever.

Throughout the show, I was in a state of nirvana.  Throughout the show, I felt the physical impact of the music, the bass thudding through me, the sonic assault enveloping me.  I was at times vaguely aware that my wife was sitting across the table from me.  And, as her tastes in music tend more towards Jimmy Buffett and show tunes, I fear it will be a cold day in hell before I get her to join me for another concert.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Feelin’ Old


I mean, really old.  Last night, we went to the Ram’s Head to see the Zombies.  Yeah, this was Round Two of my British Invasion concert series, after catching the Yardbirds last Sunday.  I was a bit taken aback while talking to the guitarist back then, when he mentioned plans for a Yardbirds 50th anniversary tour in 2013.  Fifty years???  Can it really be?

Then, last night, there was much talk, on-stage and off, about this being the fiftieth anniversary of the Zombies forming.  Holy crap, it’s déjà vu all over again!  Although they didn’t start hitting it big until 1965, their first rehearsal took place in 1961 in St. Albans, a northern suburb of London.  The music was excellent … Colin Blunstone, the original singer, was still in fine form after 50 years of vocal cord abuse, and Rod Argent, the other founding member, was vibrant on keyboards and vocals.  I guess I’m jealous … these guys can sing, and sing well, after 50 years, and I still have half a dozen restraining orders barring me from singing in public.

But I digress.  The music was excellent.  They did a two-hour set, amazing for a bunch of old guys, comprised of a healthy mix of old and new stuff.  The hits from the mid-60s were there … Tell Her No, Time of the Season, and the pre-encore tune, She’s Not There.  There was no encore in the traditional sense … they didn’t go through the silly motions of walking off stage, only to file back on for one last song.  They just stayed on stage and played.  The encore … Gershwin’s Summertime, from Porgy and Bess.  Yeah, you read that right.  ‘Twas a bold move to close out the show with something other than one of their big hits, but it worked.  Blunstone’s vocals carried it, and everyone left on a high note.

This Thursday ends the trilogy of post-deployment concerts with the Adrian Belew Power Trio, also at the Ram’s Head.  Given that Belew only has five years on me, and his Power Trio is fleshed out by some youngsters, I hope not to feel so old and decrepit after that show.  But I’ve also given notice that, since Belew will also be accompanied by two other former members of King Crimson, I may morph into the embarrassing fan during the show.  I’ll report back on Friday.  Until then, “Rock on!”

Monday, September 12, 2011

Homecoming Festivities


Okay, I ordered the tickets for this show while deployed, so technically, tonight constituted part of my post-deployment process.  And what a night it was!

Earlier tonight, I dragged my beloved to the Ram’s Head in Annapolis to see the Yardbirds.  Yes, those Yardbirds.  What an amazing show!  Two original band members, Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar and Jim McCarty on drums, were rounded out by three young whippersnappers, and they did an awesome job on both newer material and ‘60s classics.  Lead guitarist Ben King plays with the soul of the original band … Clapton needs to be looking over his shoulder at this young up-and-coming star.

The ninety-minute set included such greats as Heart Full of Soul, Smokestack Lightning, and Over Under Sideways Down.  The set wrapped up with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused.  Then the encore … the quintessentially bluesy I’m a Man.

I’m amped.  I’m stoked.  And just think, next week, we get to do it again … twice.  We’ve got tickets to see the Zombies and the Adrian Belew Power Trio (and with the Stick Men along for the ride, we’ll be seeing most of the 1980s King Crimson line-up).  Oh yeah!

In the run-up to this concert, I’d just about sobered up from yesterday’s Real Ale Festival.  I connected with Dale, a former Marine EOD tech and fellow Brother of the Leaf, to head up to Duclaw Brewery’s annual Real Ale fest.  Nearly 20 breweries were represented, featuring 40 different ales and stouts (yeah, a lager/pilsner or two snuck in).  For four hours, it was all the beer you could consume, along with endless food (including three whole roast pigs).  The brews were, by and large, superb (with the exception of one sour cherry concoction that we discretely dumped after the first sip).  No big commercial operations were represented; it was a gathering of small craft brewers.  Lots of robust stouts, lots of hoppy ales, and most amazing, no lines.  The folks at Duclaw did a fine job of managing the festival, so we never had to wait to fill our glasses.  This is going to be a must-do event on my calendar every year.

Me and Dale

Like my tattoo?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Cruise Recap I


So, have I groused enough yet about the abysmal Internet connectivity on MS Avalon Tranquility?  When we paid up (€15 for the whole week), we were warned, in appropriate Slavic-accented English, "Eez satellite connection.  May be slow."  Yeah, slow as frozen pond water.  Slow enough that opening an e-mail was painful.  Slow enough that uploading a blog post was not a doable option.

So, after capturing the moment yesterday of the fun and flair of the beer festival, we find ourselves back to recapping the Danube cruise, in addition to talking about Budapest.

Let's go back to square one.  I suspect this will be one of many posts, as you probably have no desire to read long, drawn-out, multi-day accounts of things past.

We boarded the Avalon Tranquility on the afternoon of Sunday, August 21st and got settled in our stateroom.  A bit on the small side, but that would only be a concern if we were spending the whole trip there.  As it turns out, we had a very busy schedule ahead of us.

We spent Sunday night tied up in Nürnberg and had a splendid meal onboard ... the first of many.  I finally found out firsthand what people have been telling me for years -- cruising is all about the food.  I was amazed by both the quality and quantity.  The only saving grace is that we toured on foot enough during a massive Central European heat wave to walk off a lot of those calories.

The post I started writing on Day One of the cruise was titled "Rollin' Down the ... Canal."  If I'd done my homework, I'd have known that we weren't actually starting out on the Danube, but rather on the Main-Danube Canal, which we traversed for over 100 miles until we reached the mighty Danube River near Regensburg.  So, instead of rollin' down the river, a la Ike and Tina Turner, we meandered down the canal, stopping to traverse a total of eight locks before reaching the Danube.  I was especially impressed by the fact that, in the midst of those eight locks, we went through three successive locks that raised us 24 meters or about 81 feet each.  Yes, each ... three locks elevated us nearly 250 feet towards Europe's continental divide.

Here we are about to enter one of those huge locks:
Approaching one of the 24-meter canal locks
I was also surprised to see that there were locks along the Danube as well.  But that's a topic for another post.

So, Tuesday morning, we docked at Regensburg.  Another lovely old German city with several interesting facts in its favor.  Foremost is that the city center is extremely well-preserved from its medieval origins.  During World War II, the Allied strategic bombing campaign took out the Messerschmitt aircraft factories on the outskirts of town but, in an unusual exception to the Air Force's standard 20,000 foot "one pass. haul ass" approach to carpet bombing, they left the heart of the city pretty much unscathed.  So those lovely Gothic churches in town are original, not reconstructed (as was the case in Nürnberg).

Upriver from Regensburg was the Danube Gorge, which we visited on a smaller river tour boat.  The Gorge, the narrowest part of the Danube, is defined by tall limestone cliffs, and I doubt the Avalon Tranquility could have negotiated the sharp bends in the river at that point.  Very impressive.

Then, after seeing the Gorge, we toured the Benedictine Abbey at Weltenburg.  Featuring Germany's oldest monastic brewery (since 1050), they produce a Dunkel (dark lager) that is said to be Pope Benedict's favorite (not a surprise, since he spent a lot of pre-Vatican time teaching in Regensburg, and still has family there.  They also claim that His Holiness has the Weltenburg Dunkel shipped to Rome.  We got a sample a pint, and it was definitely an enjoyable beer.  I felt sanctified as I drank it.

Drinking His Holiness's Fave Bier
I guess the Weltenburg Dunkel wasn't enough ... upon returning to the boat, we found the Bavarian Beer Experience about to start.  Hansel und Gretel, in lederhosen and dirndl, walked us through a PowerPoint presentation about brewing, accompanied by a sample of four beers, running from Hell ("bright" beer, not too hoppy, or interesting) to Lager (good stuff!) through Dunkel and ending with a wheat beer.

Killer Travel Day


The final leg of the trip started Tuesday night.  After catching a cab from our hotel, we found the first train to work us back to Frankfurt.  We had a sleeper compartment in the Schlaffwagen on the Budapest night train to Munich.




A nine-hour haul, departing at 9PM ... it was a distinct pleasure when the locomotive hitched up to the rest of the train and we got some air conditioning to clear out the stagnant, humid air in the compartment.  After sharing a bottle of Austrian white wine over a game of iPad Scrabble, we retired to our separate bunk beds (for the record, Jeannie volunteered to climb the ladder to the top bunk) for an uneventful ride through Hungary, Austria and Bavaria, finally reaching the Hauptbahnhof at Munich, where we debarked shortly after 6AM to change trains for a pleasant three-hour ride in first class, watching the countryside go by.




The cool part of the trip was arriving in Frankfurt, where the train station is a part of the airport.  No taxi rides through town, no worrying about missed connections, just a short bag drag to the Lufthansa check-in.  And, after a final German Pilsner in Germany, we moved down the chute into the cattle car environment that is coach flying.  I preemptively fired up the iPod to block out the sound of screeching little brats, then returned to the laptop for more writing.  Thank God for modern electronics.

After landing, collecting luggage, clearing customs and finding the car in the garage at Dulles, we landed smack in the middle of the DC rush hour.  Not to fear, said I ... I know just the place to wait out the horrors of the Beltway.  And so it was that my first post-deployment meal back in the USA was sushi at Tachibana.  Interesting visit ... the dining experience was, as always, most excellent.  But the staff at first didn't recognize me.  No more long hair or facial hair, and 40 pounds lighter than on my last visit.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Gettin' 'Donked in Budapest


We arrived in Budapest on Saturday morning and did a bunch of touring both morning and afternoon.  This morning, we debarked from MS Avalon Tranquility and played tourist again, spending the morning in the "Secret Hospital and Nuclear Bunker."  Cool place, very dank Cold War-ish, very eerie.

After heading back to the hotel to check into our room (Jeannie did an amazing job, we're in a room on the "Executive Floor" of the Budapest Hilton with a majestic ... no other word will suffice ... view of the Danube), we headed out to check out the old city of Buda.  Jeannie had this great idea about touring the Budavári Palota, or Royal Palace.

Hah!!

Little did she know (well, neither did I) that the Budapest Sörfesztival, or Beer Festival, was in its fourth and final day on the palace grounds.  Tell me, dear readers, where else could you attend a beer festival in a palace built on top of Roman ruins?  In Budapest on the last weekend of August, that's where!

Okay, short story long, we spent a few hours at the festival, first off listening to a Joe Cocker cover band (yeah, go figure, a Hungarian Joe Cocker, but it worked) while drinking pints of local brew.  We strolled the castle/museum grounds a bit, then sat to listen to more Joe Cocker.  They closed their set, natch, with A Little Help From My Friends.  And during this set, I switched from Hungarian lager to Delirium Tremens, a très potent Belgian ale, aptly symbolized by a pink elephant.  Jeannie stuck with Hungarian brews as I resisted the ale-inspired urge to do a really bad air guitar while, in my mind, reliving Joe's Woodstock performance.  After they wrapped up their set, I moved on to Corsendonk, another fine Belgian ale, although not quite as ass-kicking as the Delirium Tremens.  What's wrong with me, I asked, as I went through a Hungarian beerfest drinking Belgian brews.

Caution, cheesy product placement follows:



Oh well, not a problem, as the next band took up the stage.  Mild local headbangers with sax and violin thrown in for good measure.  After a few of their tunes, we popped smoke and headed for the gate, before I did more Belgians and needed to be carried back to the hotel.  We did, however, escape with some cool souvenir mugs.

I should note at this point that I'm ecstatic to be back in an Internet-friendly zone.  For seven days, although we had a marvelous cruise on the Avalon Tranquility, the connectivity, in a word, sucked,  I can now do more than glare at the laptop as an e-mail takes forever to load.