Wednesday, January 31, 2007


This is Wednesday afternoon. On Friday morning we head out to the airport to fly to Ho Chi Minh City, first stop on a 23-day jaunt to Southeast Asia.

When I mention this to friends or family I hear some variation on:
“You must be excited.”
“Are you excited?”
“Are you looking forward to it?”
“Are your bags packed?”

To which my honest answer is “no,” “no,” and “no.”

How can that be? What’s the matter with me? I must be some kind of jaded jerk.

Here’s the thing: I live in the present. I don’t look forward with great anticipation to an upcoming event. When it happens and it’s great I totally enjoy it. I can really get into it. But before that – fuggett it.

Let’s look honestly at my Friday/Saturday excursion. After dealing with the annoyance of airport security I spend almost a full day flying half way round the world. Even if the food and service are good, that’s still a long time in a stuffy airplane. Then, voila, I arrive and it is about midnight. The first bonus of my trip is to fall into a bed and hope I sleep.

I know, I know. That’s a small price to pay for having a chance to see new places and be in new cultures. But we’re not talking about the payoffs. We’re talking about being excited about something before it happens.

So excuse me if I’m not bubbling over with enthusiasm. And besides, I’ve got a few things left to do before I leave.

I don’t expect to post anything on my blog while I’m away. I will have something to say when I return. There you go – you can look forward to it.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Whole Story in a Nutshell

The following article appeared in today's NY Times. I sent it to friends and said: "Sometimes a micro look captures everything." See for yourself.

In a New Joint U.S.-Iraqi Patrol, the Americans Go First

Published: January 25, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 24 — In the battle for Baghdad, Haifa Street has changed hands so often that it has taken on the feel of a no man’s land, the deadly space between opposing trenches. On Wednesday, as American and Iraqi troops poured in, the street showed why it is such a sensitive gauge of an urban conflict marked by front lines that melt into confusion, enemies with no clear identity and allies who disappear or do not show up at all.

In a miniature version of the troop increase that the United States hopes will secure the city, American soldiers and armored vehicles raced onto Haifa Street before dawn to dislodge Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias who have been battling for a stretch of ragged slums and mostly abandoned high rises. But as the sun rose, many of the Iraqi Army units who were supposed to do the actual searches of the buildings did not arrive on time, forcing the Americans to start the job on their own.

When the Iraqi units finally did show up, it was with the air of a class outing, cheering and laughing as the Americans blew locks off doors with shotguns. As the morning wore on and the troops came under fire from all directions, another apparent flaw in this strategy became clear as empty apartments became lairs for gunmen who flitted from window to window and killed at least one American soldier, with a shot to the head.

Whether the gunfire was coming from Sunni or Shiite insurgents or militia fighters or some of the Iraqi soldiers who had disappeared into the Gotham-like cityscape, no one could say.
“Who the hell is shooting at us?” shouted Sgt. First Class Marc Biletski, whose platoon was jammed into a small room off an alley that was being swept by a sniper’s bullets. “Who’s shooting at us? Do we know who they are?”

Just before the platoon tossed smoke bombs and sprinted through the alley to a more secure position, Sergeant Biletski had a moment to reflect on this spot, which the United States has now fought to regain from a mysterious enemy at least three times in the past two years.

“This place is a failure,” Sergeant Biletski said. “Every time we come here, we have to come back.”

He paused, then said, “Well, maybe not a total failure,” since American troops have smashed opposition on Haifa Street each time they have come in.

With that, Sergeant Biletski ran through the billowing yellow smoke and took up a new position.
The Haifa Street operation, involving Bradley Fighting Vehicles as well as the highly mobile Stryker vehicles, is likely to cause plenty of reflection by the commanders in charge of the Baghdad buildup of more than 20,000 troops. Just how those extra troops will be used is not yet known, but it is likely to mirror at least broadly the Haifa Street strategy of working with Iraqi forces to take on unruly groups from both sides of the Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide.

The commander of the operation, Lt. Col. Avanulas Smiley of the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division, said his forces were not interested in whether opposition came from bullets fired by Sunnis or by Shiites. He conceded that the cost of letting the Iraqi forces learn on the job was to add to the risk involved in the operation.

“This was an Iraqi-led effort and with that come challenges and risks,” Colonel Smiley said. “It can be organized chaos.”

The American units in the operation began moving up Haifa Street from the south by 2 a.m. on Wednesday. A platoon of B Company in the Stryker Brigade secured the roof of a high rise, where an Eminem poster was stuck on the wall of what appeared to be an Iraqi teenager’s room on the top floor. But in a pattern that would be repeated again and again in a series of buildings, there was no one in the apartment.

Many of the Iraqi units that showed up late never seemed to take the task seriously, searching haphazardly, breaking dishes and rifling through personal CD collections in the apartments. Eventually the Americans realized that the Iraqis were searching no more than half of the apartments; at one point the Iraqis completely disappeared, leaving the American unit working with them flabbergasted.

“Where did they go?” yelled Sgt. Jeri A. Gillett. Another soldier suggested, “I say we just let them go and we do this ourselves.”

Then the gunfire began. It would come from high rises across the street, from behind trash piles and sandbags in alleys and from so many other directions that the soldiers began to worry that the Iraqi soldiers were firing at them. Mortars started dropping from across the Tigris River, to the east, in the direction of a Shiite slum.

The only thing that was clear was that no one knew who the enemy was. “The thing is, we wear uniforms — they don’t,” said Specialist Terry Wilson.

At one point the Americans were forced to jog alongside the Strykers on Haifa Street, sheltering themselves as best they could from the gunfire. The Americans finally found the Iraqis and ended up accompanying them into an extremely dangerous and exposed warren of low-slung hovels behind the high rises as gunfire rained down.

American officers tried to persuade the Iraqi soldiers to leave the slum area for better cover, but the Iraqis refused to risk crossing a lane that was being raked by machine-gun fire. “It’s their show,” said Lt. David Stroud, adding that the Americans have orders to defer to the Iraqis in cases like this.

In this surreal setting, about 20 American soldiers were forced at one point to pull themselves one by one up a canted tin roof by a dangling rubber hose and then shimmy along a ledge to another hut. The soldiers were stunned when a small child suddenly walked out of a darkened doorway and an old man started wheezing and crying somewhere inside.

Ultimately the group made it back to the high rises and escaped the sniper in the alley by throwing out the smoke bombs and sprinting to safety. Even though two Iraqis were struck by gunfire, many of the rest could not stop shouting and guffawing with amusement as they ran through the smoke.

One Iraqi soldier in the alley pointed his rifle at an American reporter and pulled the trigger. There was only a click: the weapon had no ammunition. The soldier laughed at his joke.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Moment of Truth

Well, not quite the moment of truth yet, but it’s not too far away. I’m talking about my writing project, which is now well into its second year – my memoir. (I’m told I should call it an autobiography, since I’m relating my whole life story up to now. Whatever…)

For years I resisted doing this writing. Why? Because while I thought my story was interesting I couldn’t see of what value it would be to anyone beyond the few who love me and really care. Unless it had broader appeal and would be useful to readers who’d never heard of me it seemed like too big a job to take on. In other words, I’m willing to expend time and energy on something that will really make a difference. I’m not willing to engage in some narcissistic undertaking that might be satisfying for my ego, and that’s all.

What finally turned me around was that I saw that putting the story down might be an opportunity for me to unearth some nuggets that could be useful to others. Ways in which I’ve lived my life that have worked or not worked. What did it take to be happy and fulfilled? What was behind my success? What did I learn? What didn’t I see along the way that I see now? Insights that I think are worth passing on.

I want to underline that I said ‘might.’ I didn’t and don’t know for sure whether at the end of the story telling I’ll see anything. But I’ve gone ahead and written – and written. It’s up to well over 300 pages so far, excluding appendices (of which there would be many) and also excluding the last 15-20 years. I’m about 2/3 of the way through the 1980’s.

I have a commitment to finish this stage of the project and decide what, if anything, to do next by the end of this year. So I’ll keep going.

The truth is I’ve enjoyed the process. I’m surprised, since I’ve never been interested in reliving or wanting to relive the past. So going back and recapturing it all has been counterintuitive for me. Also, I’ve wanted to be brutally honest in assessing what I’ve done and suspect that I’ve been overly critical of myself. Maybe gone a little overboard in taking a ‘show them the warts and all’ approach. We’ll see.

In the meantime I’ll keep on writing.

To Be Continued … Sometime.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Research Project

Recently Ms Marsh suggested that I pay more attention to American football, since the playoffs are here. In the not-too-distant past I was an avid fan. I went into hibernation on this sport when the 49’ers went in the toilet. Anyway, since I always do what Sandra suggests (or at least sometimes) I've made time during these past two weekends to watch. Herewith my observations:

1. Without a DVR I would have failed in this project. Stop. Start. Commercials. More commercials. Challenges. Etc. Being able to record and then view or use the Pause button minimized my impatience.

2. The players seem bigger and uglier than I remember them. And it seems there are more white guys up front. It may be my memory is sketchy on these points, but that's the way it looked to me.

3. I find it hard to remember who played whom from day to day once a game is finished. I had to look in the paper to remember that it was Seattle that played Chicago on Sat. And the Super Bowl last year? Don't have a clue.

4. I do remember individual performances and some were really good. Like Brady, Tomlinson, Deuce, Urlacher, Heap. And some were terrible. Like Grossman, Rivers, Manning. I guess QB's are held to a higher standard.

5. It's hard not to want New Orleans to do well. But want it or not they will kill the Bears next week. I recognize that the Bears won and it was dramatic, but they seem hopeless to me.

6. I wanted San Diego to beat the Pats (West Coast and all you know) but I didn't feel bad when they lost. They had chances to put it away and didn't. And it was only New England this past weekend that looked like a championship team. Not only Brady, they all had the presence, the demeanor, of winners.

7. So I'd guess it will be New England and New Orleans in the Super Bowl. And that has the possibility of being a good game. But I'll be hangin' out in Ho Chi Minh City that day and don't intend to watch. I won't miss it. And that's my conclusion from my NFL research project. I haven't paid attention in recent years and I don't miss it.

Monday, January 08, 2007

And Away We Go

I’ve started to focus on our next big trip, which begins on Feb. 2, less than four weeks from now. To be accurate I should say re-focus, since many months ago I put the logistics in place – where we’ll go, when, how we’ll get there, where we’ll stay. Being my own travel agent is both challenging and fun, and I have no doubt that I do a better job than those other travel agents who get paid for it.

I’m saying “I,” but I’m no fool. I make sure that I work out the basics with Ms Marsh in advance. While I may do the research and spend the hours online and even make decisions, I do it in partnership with Sandra. To do otherwise would be a recipe for, let’s say, a wee confrontation.

Planning for these trips begins well over a year in advance. First, we need to decide where we’re going. Then we need to make sure we can get flights using our United miles. We travel addicts know that reservations can be made 331 days in advance. So 331 days before our return flight home I’m on the phone. Since only a few seats are set aside for reward travel, it takes patience and creativity to work it out. But I always seem to manage.

This time we’re returning to Asia, to places we’ve not been before. Specifically, we’ll be in Vietnam, with stops in Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi; Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos; and Sarawak in Malaysia. Sarawak, while a Malaysian state, is a jungle area on the north coast of Borneo. We wanted to get to these places before they are overrun with tourists. We’re probably a little late for Vietnam, but I suspect in a few years 2007 will be thought of as on the early side. Laos and Sarawak are still very much off the beaten track.

The part of this trip that proved most challenging to organize was Laos. Even with the Internet it was tough. (In the old days, before websites and email, setting up travel to obscure areas like these was near impossible.) I knew that we needed to fly from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and back again, and I knew there were flights, but I had to struggle to get the details. Finally, I found a flight schedule; then I couldn’t find a way to buy tickets. Finally, after much googling, I located a travel outfit in Bangkok that was able to get tickets and had a way for me to pay for them. Finding hotels in Laos was tough but more manageable than the planes.

I’ve been anxious big time about our visas for Laos. I sent our passports to their Embassy in Washington in mid-December. On Dec. 26 I got a call from a Mr. Mone telling me I hadn’t sent enough money. I rushed to the bank to get the certified check and mailed it. Knowing that there was still plenty of time didn’t lessen my anxiety. This morning I called Mr. Mone to see what was happening. It took a while to find him, but I did. He said he’d check and call me back. So far he hasn’t called, but now it doesn’t matter. Our passports, with visas, were in the mail this afternoon. Whew!

At this point our job is to familiarize ourselves with details about where we’ll be going. Are there places outside the cities we should visit? Do we have time? What are the tradeoffs? How about in the cities themselves? How should we spend our time? We know, of course, that none of this will be written in stone. There’ll be plenty of opportunity for the unknown and the serendipitous.

We have a 4-hour rule that we try to adhere to. That is, we’re good for maybe four hours of sightseeing a day. Going morning till night trying to cram every last ‘must see’ into our schedule is lunacy. At least half the day should be leisurely. Wander around. Read. Just ‘be’ in the place. Since my life is an ongoing vacation, going on a long trip is the hardest work I do. I’m sure when we return I’ll be happy we did it. I’ll let you know.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Dear Old Mum

I was over to have lunch with my mother yesterday. Dear Old Mum is doing pretty well. She is, after all, 95 years old.

I call her Dorothy (her name) more than Mother. Something that began many years ago and has now become a habit. She looks good. She’s from a generation that cares about appearances. So she always dresses nicely – clean clothes, no wrinkles, good style. And of course she goes to the beauty parlor every Thursday to get her hair done.

Dorothy is very proud of her hair. It has been a lovely silver for a long time. Maybe thinning a bit, but always neat. Sometimes she says she doesn’t feel well, but I can tell if she’s really sick by asking whether she skipped her hair appointment. Doesn’t happen often.

She lives independently in her own apartment in Baywood Court in Castro Valley, about 40 minutes from here over in the East Bay. Baywood is a Senior Citizen complex and a very nice one. I guess she’s lived there about ten years. Or maybe more. It’s been nearly ten years since my father died and he was in a nursing home for some time during his decline.

She’d remember when she moved there. Her memory for things from the past is excellent. But her memory for five minutes ago ain’t too hot. So she repeats things frequently. I just listen patiently to the repeats. There’s not much else one can do. It upsets her to realize that she doesn’t remember like she used to. And while she’s a nice old lady she has a stubborn streak that resists what she wants to resist. So she resists my suggestion that she can deal with her short-term memory loss by writing things down. She’s not going to change.

Dorothy isn’t too steady on her feet. She uses a cane most of the time, but she resists that too. My giving her a hard time about it won’t make any difference. Like I say, she’s not going to change.

But you know what? I think she’s fine just the way she is. We’re lucky she’s lived to her ripe old age and has been able to enjoy it.