Sunday, September 30, 2012

Wallace goes back to Underland

If you enjoyed Wallace in Underland, then you'll love Further Adventures of Wallace in Underland.  Wallace, upon returning from his first visit was a changed little boy.  He now had friends, and a newfound sense of self-confidence.  Then, one day, Ralph the rat comes back and tells him his help is needed once again; unfortunately, this time, his friends insist on coming along.

This story is available in paperback at, and will soon be available on the main site as well as other retail book sites.  The Kindle version is available at


Dealing With Distractions

As a writer, among the things you have to deal with; especially if you have a family; are the distractions that pull your attention away from your writing.

     These distractions come in many guises; from the annoying ring of the phone; usually telemarketers trying to sell you something you neither want nor need; to the kids who want you to play catch with them in the backyard just when you’re struggling with a particularly troublesome passage.  Dealing with the former is easy. Just do your writing in a space that’s out of ear shot of the phone.  As for the second, if you’re like me; an empty nester; that’s no longer a problem. When my kids were small, though, I did my writing early in the morning before they woke up, or at night after they’d gone to sleep.  That writing schedule has been the one I’ve followed for the past several decades, although, now that I’m retired from public service, and my daily schedule is my own, I can write any time I chose – except for the most annoying distraction of all.

     I call this distraction my ‘anti-muse.’  Unless you’re unattached, and have severed all ties with your family and friends, it’s likely you also have an anti-muse.  This is a person, a friend or significant other, who, like your kids when they were small, seems to want your attention just when you’d rather focus it on the chapter in progress, or when you’re facing a deadline to get an article finished and submitted.

     My anti-muse is my beloved significant other, a companion for the past forty years, who looks at writing as a nice hobby, but hardly something serious for someone my age.

     The distractions usually go something like this.  I’m in the middle of trying to figure out how to plant a subtle clue in either the dialogue or narrative of my mystery novel in progress, to let the astute reader know who the killer really is, and I hear, “Honey, honey, come here.”  I have an office I’ve set up in the garage, and she’s usually watching a soap opera on TV two rooms away, so the voice is just audible.  Despite that, I’m expected to drop whatever it is I’m doing because she has something ‘important’ on her mind.

     A recent ‘important’ item, which came to her mind just as I was trying to find a subtle way to foreshadow the peril to come for my hero, was the question; “When we were dating, you bought me a cake for my birthday.  Who ate the most of that cake, me or you?”  Now, I have problem remembering what I ate for breakfast this morning, so expecting me to remember how much cake I ate over forty years ago is cruel and inhumane.  But, she expects an answer, so I make one up. “I ate most of it,” I say.  “I thought so,” she said.  “That’s why you need to go on a diet.  You’re putting on weight around your middle.”  “Okay,” I say.  “No more snacks for me.  Anything else?”  I realize as soon as I’ve said it that this is the wrong question to ask; there’s always something else, and it’s likely to be even more obscure than the mystery of the birthday cake.

     I love writing, but I also love my wife and would like to maintain the relationship, so telling her to ‘button it,’ because I’m busy writing is not an option.  That would only cause tears and the old ‘you’re too old to be wasting your time sitting at a computer making up stories that only a few people read, anyway.  Why don’t you go get a job as a teacher, at least you’d have a nice title.”

     The anti-muses don’t think ‘writer’ is a proper title.  It’s not even a real job, they reason.  You don’t make any money, and you’ll never be as famous as Stephen King.  Well, maybe they’re right – my royalty checks are awful small, and I have about as much chance of making a best seller list as I do of being selected into the Astronaut program.  But, being a writer is about more than fancy titles.  It’s about having ideas and thoughts whirling around in your brain that you’re compelled to share, even if it’s only with a few hundred people who buy your books.

     So, I deal with the anti-muse by nodding sagely, and agreeing that being a teacher is a good thing, but teachers don’t get paid much either, and besides, I’m too old to go back into the job market, and I already spent fifty years following someone else’s schedule; so, it’s time I did something that allowed me to set my own.  Writing does that. I can write one hour per day (that easily gives me my 1,000 words per day quota), or I can write for eight hours if I feel like it.  I don’t have to worry about some petty bureaucrat in a cubicle somewhere second guessing what I write as I did working for the government for five decades.  I only have to hope that readers out there, somewhere, will relate to what I write.

     It’s liberating; if only I could figure out a way to cage up that anti-muse.


For Foreign Diplomats, Social Media’s Benefits Outweigh Its Risks - PRNewser

For Foreign Diplomats, Social Media’s Benefits Outweigh Its Risks - PRNewser

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Habits and Creativity

I like to think of myself as a creative person; I’ve created imagined worlds, such as the mythic Pandara in my two books about a foundling with special powers, done a parody of Alice in Wonderland, with a gritty urban setting and some rather strange creatures, and in my Al Pennyback mystery series, I have my hero jumping from one unsolvable case (which he solves in the end) to another.

At the same time, I’m a creature of habit.  I’ve always been somewhat anal retentive about certain things; I always put my left shoe on first, I brush my teeth from the left side of my mouth to the right, and I always sleep on the same side of the bed even when sleeping alone; and, my somewhat weird behavior was reinforced by twenty years in the army where habits of behavior were the order of the day.

Now, you might be thinking that having two distinct personalities like this inhabiting the same body would lead to contradictions.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.

I find that by having an established routine for my routine daily tasks; such as writing no less than 1,000 words each day; actually help stimulate the creative juices.  By not having to give much thought to what I wear, how I wear it, or other mundane tasks throughout the day, I have more of my brain available when I sit down at the keyboard and start manipulating characters through yet another improbable adventure.

My wife thinks I’m crazy; and, for all I know, she might be right.  After all, I’ve heard often that the line between genius and insanity is awful thin. Not, mind you, that I think of myself as a genius.  Far from it; I’m must a simple person who has complex thoughts; often weird thoughts that strike unbidden in the middle of the night.  I think in pictures and scenes, and I bring that thought process to my writing.  Because I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what to wear or what to eat, or any of the other dozens of things that consume inordinate amounts of the average person’s time during the day, I have time to think about things like; what would happen if your long-dead grandmother came back as a foot-tall spirit determined to turn your boring life around?  What in the dickens is a frog doing nesting in my running shoe in the garage?  Things like that; things that almost always trigger an idea for a story or poem, or an article.

So, there you have it; I’m a creative creature of habit; possessed of the same curiosity about the world around me as I was when I was a child taking apart my mother’s record player to see how it worked.  I only hope I never grow up.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Digital Diplomacy Makes Everyone a Diplomat

On September 22, 2012, I had the honor of participating in a panel on “How Digital is Redefining Diplomacy,” at the Social Good Summit in New York City.  The summit was opened with a streamed speech from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in which she said, in effect, “Anyone can be a diplomat, all you do is hit ‘send.’” 

On the panel with me were Victoria Esser, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Digital Strategy, Ambassador Dino Patti Djalai, Indonesian ambassador to the U.S., and Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, Mexican ambassador to the U.S.  The panel was moderated by Chrystia Freeland, digital editor for Thomson Reuters.

Esser gave an excellent overview of how the U.S. Department of State is using social media to extend its reach to previously underserved audiences.  The two ambassadors described how they use Twitter to reach thousands who would otherwise not get their messages.  I talked about how the use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had been used when I served as U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe to get around efforts of some in that country’s government to restrict our access to youthful audiences.

The bottom line of all our presentations was that social media and digital platforms are amazingly versatile tools that can be used to pursue diplomatic objectives, but, in the end, they are only tools.  They’re not doomsday weapons that will destroy your career if you misuse them any more than the traditional methods of diplomacy; nor are they magic wands that will, with a simple wave, solve all your problems.  Digital does not replace traditional diplomacy.  What it does is extend it.  It gives diplomats a means of reaching audiences that don’t have access to the more traditional methods, or, who prefer to get their information by nontraditional means.

One thing that I observed in my three years of social media interaction with thousands of young Zimbabweans, as well as many from other parts of the world who subscribe to my Facebook and Twitter pages, is that the younger generation likes to be part of the conversation; to engage in dialogue rather than being passive recipients.  The benefit of digital is that it allows this two-way communication on a global scale and is not bound by time or space.  The audience, unlike with traditional methods of two-way communication, can be truly global and 24/7.

While face-to-face interaction is still the most effective way to share information, when circumstances make this difficult or impossible; as it often does in countries with repressive, controlling regimes, social media can fill the gap.  When, for instance, hard line elements in Zimbabwe’s government began disrupting or stopping my face-to-face contacts with youth audiences, my staff and I initiated live Facebook chats, and I opened a dialogue with young people through my Facebook page, getting around the restrictions, and expanding my audience exponentially.  I often found myself engaging in chats with young people late at night when I couldn’t sleep; and the subjects were wide ranging.  The flexibility and immediacy of social media allowed broader coverage than I’d ever been able to achieve in traditional face-to-face meetings.  Follow up was facilitated, and conversations often went on for weeks instead of a few minutes as would happen during a normal meeting or public event.

It might seem counter intuitive, but social media also allowed me to give more personal attention to individuals than would have been possible in a physical encounter with a large audience.  During a Facebook chat, I was able to interact with in individual on a specific issue, while at the same time maintaining the general conversation with everyone else in the discussion thread.  That is impossible to do in a face-to-face encounter.  In addition, there was continuity that is also hard to achieve with traditional meetings.  When a physical meeting is over, everyone goes back to wherever they came from and follow up is sometimes difficult to arrange.  With social media, you’re always there, just a few keystrokes away.

Social media will not replace traditional diplomacy, but, it has already redefined it.  In order to be effective in advancing their nations’ aims, diplomats must now add this tool to their toolbox.  It’s no longer enough to communicate only with government officials or elites.  In order to be truly effective, diplomats must reach out to a global audience, even on local issues, and digital is the flavor of the moment.

How Social Media is Transforming Diplomacy

Speaking on the margins of the Social Good Summit in NYC on Sep. 22, 2012:

Opening of Social Good Summit 2012

Friday, September 21, 2012

POW/MIA Recognition Day, 2012

POW/MIA Recognition Day, 2012

Honoring Those Who Did Not Return - POW/MIA Recognition Day, 2012

Millions of Americans have gone off to war.  Since World War II, approximately 83,000 have not returned home.  These are the men and women who were captured but not later accounted for, or who went missing through combat action and were not recovered.  Many are at the bottom of the ocean, lost or buried at sea; while others lie in unmarked graves in distant lands.

But, though they might not have returned, they have not been forgotten; not by their families, nor by a grateful nation.

Each September, the Defense Department holds a POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony to honor those who were prisoners of war (POW) or missing in action (MIA).  The September 2012 ceremony was held September 21 at the River Terrace Parade Field of the Pentagon, overlooking the Potomac River.  Attending the ceremony were senior Pentagon civilian and military officials, active duty and retired military personnel, representatives of veterans’ organizations, and relatives of those who remain unaccounted for.

Admiral James A. Winnefield, Jr., Vice Chairman of the Joints of Staff, and Ashton B. Carter, Deputy Secretary of Defense, made opening remarks welcoming everyone to the event.  Keynote speaker was Chuck Hagel, former U.S. Senator from Nebraska, and currently Distinguished Professor at Georgetown University.  Hagel is also a Vietnam veteran, having served as a squad leader in an army infantry unit during the 1968 Tet Offensive.  He served in the U.S. Senate from 1997 to 2009.  In his remarks, he lauded the military as one of America’s most enduring institutions, and paid honor to those who have without question answered their country’s call, often paying the ultimate sacrifice.

After the speeches, the military staged a ‘March-in-Review,’ which included military personnel carrying the flags of each of the states.  The band played a medley of the service songs, and the ceremony concluded with a fly over of army helicopters and air force jets in the ‘missing man’ formation which is used to honor comrades who fall in battle.

In his Proclamation to mark National POW/MIA Recognition Day, 2012, a copy of which was provided to those attending the ceremony, President Barack Obama said, “For more than two centuries, Americans have bravely served our Nation as members of our Armed Forces.  Many have made profound sacrifices to uphold the ideal we cherish, carrying wound that may never fully heal and dark memories that will never fade.  Today, we pay solemn tribute to service members who bore war’s tragic costs as prisoners of war and those missing in action.  We stand with the families who have known the lingering ache of a loved one’s uncertain fate.  And as a Nation, we reaffirm a most sacred obligation; that we must never forget the men and women who did not come home, and that we must never stop trying to return them to their families and the country they fought to protect.”

More than 600 men and women, service members and civilians, around the world, work day and night to keep the promise implied in the President’s proclamation. From the analysts and outreach specialists of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) in Crystal City, Virginia, to the anthropologists and other specialists of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii, to the service casualty officers and family support personnel serving throughout the United States, they literally leave no stone unturned in their effort to locate, identify, and return, the remains of those unaccounted for from World War II to the present conflicts.

These gallant men and women often go in harm’s way themselves in their efforts to live up to these words in President Obama’s Proclamation:  “As long as members of our Armed Forces remain unaccounted for, America will bring our fullest resources to bear to finding them, and bringing them home.  It is a promise we make not only to the families of our captured and our missing, but to all who have worn the uniform.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Promote Your Writing With Video Trailers

If you’re a writer, one of the things you have to do; other than write something that people will want to read; is to learn how to promote your work, one of the less desirable, but absolutely necessary tasks for every writer.  You can try direct-marketing emails, book signings, and social media like LinkedIn and Facebook; they’re all good ways to get the word out; and of course, you should have a blog and author page; but, in today’s visually oriented world, having a video trailer for your book is also an essential.

You’re probably thinking now that making a video is beyond your talent; especially if you’ve never done one before.  Or, you might think it’s too expensive.  Unless your book sales are in the thousands per month, the amount you’re getting in royalties won’t cover too many extra expenses.

But, with some of the on-line video creation sites, it couldn’t be easier to make a professional quality video that will showcase your literary creation for the world.  If you have the means, and you want to produce long videos, it can cost you, but if a 30-second video can get your message across, it can be done for free.  The site I discovered that is great for first-time video producers is  Animoto allows you to produce an unlimited number of 30-second videos at no cost, and they can be emailed to customers, embedded on your blog, author, or book page, and even exported to your YouTube account.  Tutorials walk you through the process, and within minutes you can have your first video ready for viewing.

My first effort, to promote the third of my historical novels for young adults, Buffalo Soldier: Incident at Cactus Junction, was a bit amateurish.  I forgot to put in the correct title, so it’s out there as My Animoto Video.  But, the production quality is okay, and the music adds to the effect.  I felt more comfortable when I started the second, promoting Grab the Brass Ring, so the title is prominently displayed, and I think the graphics are out of sight.

Both videos are on my Facebook page, my blog, and YouTube, and since I own the rights to all the images, I’m even able to monetize my YouTube videos by allowing ads to be inserted; just another way to add to your income from writing, and one that I’d not previously thought of.

If you want to make the most of your writing talents, video trailers are the wave of the present and future, so dig into your photo files and start honing your ability to describe your work in a few well-chosen words.  The world awaits.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why Muslims Riot

An excellent analysis from Forbes Magazine about one of the real reasons behind so much Muslim anti-American behavior, violence, and discontent.  Read more here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hezbollah Calls for More Protests Against Anti-Islam Video

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the reclusive leader of Hezbollah has called for more protests against an anti-Islam video posted on YouTube that has ignited demonstrations across the Islamic world and beyond.  Read more here.  I'll bet you dollars to donuts, he hasn't even seen the video either.

Monday, September 17, 2012

"Incident at Cactus Junction" Ready for Your Kindle!

Yet again, I was wrong about how long it takes to get a Kindle edition of a book out the door and onto the market.  Buffalo Soldier:  Incident at Cactus Junction is now hot and ready for your Kindle or Kindle app.




Don't Write What You 'Know', Write What You Want Your Readers to Know

Beginning writers, and even some of us who’ve been writing for some time, are told to ‘write what you know.’  I have to confess, I’m not at all sure just what that means.  If I write only about the things that I’ve experienced directly, fantasy and science fiction are off the table – at least until space travel is within reach of all of us, and magic is commonplace.  I’ve never seen an ogre or a fairy, but I know in my mind what one would look and act like.  I’ve never been to the Planet Mars, but I think I could do a fairly good piece about a Terran explorer on that planet, and his or her encounter with a native Martian.

Why would I be able to do this?  Because, writing fiction, in the first instance, is an exercise in using your imagination.  This is not to say that you shouldn’t do some research to make what you make up credible.  For instance, knowing the rotational period of Mars might make your imaginary Martian society more believable, and we writers are, after all, asking our readers to suspend disbelief for a while.

I think a better suggestion for a writer would be to ‘write what you can learn.’  I’ll give you a few examples.

In my historical series for young adults, Buffalo Soldiers (now up to three volumes), I write about a fictional small unit of soldiers from the Ninth US Cavalry in Texas a few years after the Civil War.  In the first book, Trial by Fire, I introduced the main character, Ben Carter, and the men in his unit.  In the story, they had an encounter with a band of renegade Comanche warriors who were raiding ranches in the area.  I inserted a few historical references, such as the date the unit was founded and where, and I used the real name of the white colonel who commanded it. Everything else was made up.  In book two, Homecoming, I had Ben return home to visit his father.  The towns and terrain, an area of East Texas where I spent my childhood, were authentic, but everything and everyone else – pure fiction.

In book three, Incident at Cactus Junction, which was recently released, except for references to the type of weapons the soldiers used, everything and everyone in the story was a figment of my imagination.

Now, I was never in the cavalry; my time in the army was in artillery and subsequently Special Forces; I don’t even ride a horse very well.  I lived in the west, mostly Texas, Oklahoma, and Arizona, so I’m relatively familiar with the terrain and some of the towns and cities – but of the twentieth century, not the late 1800s.  I use archive photos and descriptions in history books, and my imagination, to set the scene.  I sort of make up the dialect my characters use, partly from how I remember people talking when I was a kid, and partly just out of my mind to provide character tags.

I think it works; at least a few of the people who’ve bought and read the first two say they found them entertaining and credible – and, educational.

So there; you don’t necessarily have to restrict yourself to writing ‘what you know.’  If you have a good story to tell, a little research, and a vivid imagination might be enough.  In the end, it’s how well you tell the story that really counts.  If you can avoid really stupid errors – like having a cavalryman of the late 1800s firing his rifle repeatedly without reloading; the US cavalry used the Springfield single shot because of its accuracy, durability, reliability, and cost, instead of the Winchester repeater that you often see in movie westerns – you just might help your reader suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy your story.

Natural Wonders of the World Notebook

Get the King of the Hill Coffee Mug for Your Favorite Guy

Buffalo Soldier: Incident at Cactus Junction Now Available

The third in my Buffalo Soldier series is now available in paperback.  It can be ordered directly from Amazon at, and will be available soon at most online retail book sites.  It will also be available for Kindle in a few days, so you Kindle readers, stay tuned.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Fistful of Dust

Another amazing piece from my more or less permanent guest blogger, Paul Berg:

Dear Friends:

My thoughts tonight are not worth a whole formal piece for lots of people, I guess, but it’s Thursday; tomorrow most people here sleep in for the Friday holy day (returning to work after lunch; Paul, of course, will be at the office early) and I feel like writing to a few very close friends like you to relax before I turn in. S’il vous plait...

Some years back, read that badly-written book on a fascinating subject, Jonathan Pieslak’s Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in Iraq. He wrote about the kinds of music our troops like to listen to going into combat, heavy metal, hip hop and C&W. He ignored C&W but went into some detail about which particular heavy metal and hip hop groups and albums our guys used to get “cranked up” for battle. Thanks to Pieslak, I discovered that Slayer and Lil Wayne are pretty good background for a morning workout, too, closest I’m ever likely to come to going into battle.

Pieslak actually only managed to talk to a handful of men, and, as mentioned, his book is disappointing. I wanted to ask his subjects a lot more questions than he apparently did; music is a powerful hypnotic drug, one reason Ayatollah Khomeini banned it during the first years after the Revolution, and there’s a lot of research that’s never been done on how to use it more methodically to cure the mentally and physically ailing, to discipline, to motivate and encourage, to restore order. So when I meet fighting men these days, I do my own research.

On the other side of our plywood-walled Regional Platform (RP) suite lies the C-9, U.S. Marine and British Army Civilian Affairs Office. At the far end of C-9 from the RP sits Gunny Kerr, a Marine of modest rank who nevertheless holds enormous importance for me personally because he arranges air mobility for my office. He’s a softspoken, handsome young Tennessee man who, though courteous, has always been taciturn, even dour, with us, no doubt because he must often postpone or turn down our constant air mobility requests.

He was sitting alone at supper tonight, so I invited myself to the other side of the table. Tennessee? Which part, Memphis, Nashvillle or Knoxville? (By the way, every other U.S. Marine here seems to be from Tennessee; I’m polling Memphis guys I meet on where to find the best dry ribs; so far, the intel tells me it’s Rendezvous for atmosphere, Neely’s for flavor.) Kerr is from Knoxville. City or country? “Knoxville’s just a little place, only about 106,000, so everybody’s from the country even though a lot of people don’t want to admit it. And I don’t think of Memphis as even being a part of Tennessee,” he snorted into his non-alcoholic Cafeteria drink. Too close to the Mississippi. He misses his girlfriend and his 8 year old daughter Rebecca, but not his ex-wife. Still, “I’d even take her back again if it meant I could have my daughter.” He’s a mechanic who can even fix motorcycles, but tries to avoid them because of the debilitating accident his father suffered in 1972 and the fact that he, too, likes to ride fast and irresponsible when he gets going.

Gunny Kerr insists he has every kind of music on his iPod, but when he’s going into combat, he “still likes AC-DC best.” He also likes to play Johnny Cash and some of the old Nashville and bluegrass. Sentimental fellow. Shrugged indifferent when I mentioned my own C&W favorites, Toby Keith and Jason Aldean, but perked up as we walked out into the dusky, dusty, permanently beige Camp Leatherneck night and I talked about how I chose Indian classical music based on Indian friends’ recommendations during my tour in Bombay. And even got him to smile an appreciative smile when I told him I had finally figured out how to deal with my fellow Foreign Service Officers by telling them I’m just not very smart; since all Foreign Service Officers think they are brilliant but are insecure about it, conceding your own low IQ means you’re not a competitor and so you can get them to do what you want. That seemed to get through to him (he’s been dealing with my office for seven months already) and I need the air mobility.

I’ve taken to thinking of Pedro Gomez as my personal little intellectual in a bottle. Pedro is a Puerto Rican, Sagittarius, married to a Russian, who lives near Memphis (naturally, where else?) Former Marine, older guy, stout, muscular, congenial as they come, he now serves as a contract security guard at Leatherneck. He speaks fluent Russian, Spanish, Ukrainian, various dialects of English (including Australian), French and German. His late father was some sort of gifted intellectual, and, actually, so is Pedro. When we first talked about Mexico he urged me to read de Madariaga’s Corazon de Piedra Verde, which Amazon just confirmed is in my coming shipment, and this afternoon at lunch we got onto Shostakovich, his personal favorite composer. I parried with an appreciation of the String Quartet Number 3 (which I personally subtitle “Stalin Is A Bastard”), but he thrusted with the waltzes. Another advantage of working on a U.S. Marine base is that your Spanish quickly improves. (Although the guys I overheard this morning at breakfast watching the American Libya reaction on Fox, speaking low and formal, seemed to be mostly rehashing the coverage, nothing out of the ordinary; more notable was an African-American Marine passing by plate in hand complaining to no one in particular that “they’re already talking about another war! Another war! One war closer to making America a third world country! Doesn’t anybody care?”)

Dust everywhere. Beige. Everywhere.

One of the many congenial aspects of living on a Marine base with combat troops is that, like me, they take a lot of stimulants; our PX sells just about every licit form of powerful stimulant available. Long Interstate drives got me into power drinks (there’s a case of Absolutely Zero Monster in my hooch next to the mini-fridge), but what the hell is this stuff I picked up at the PX tonight? “Power Edge; on-the-go energy mix. Just add to bottled water. Guarana support for vitality, Taurine support for stamina, Ginseng support for mental clarity. (I chose one each, wild berry and tangerine strawberry flavor.) Ingredients: Citric Acid, Maltodextrin, Sodium Citrate, Caffeine, Aspartame (Phenylketuronics: contains phenylalanine), Salt, Taurine, Potassium Citrate, Ascorbic Acid, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Acesulfame Potassium, Calcium Silicate, Magnesium Oxide, Niacinamide, Pantothenic Acid, Panax Ginseng, Guarana, Vitamin B6, Red 40, Vitamjn B12, Blue 1.” Sounds like I’ll be in roid rage tomorrow.

Alarmed over my rapid loss of Pashto vocabulary after taking the test mid-July, reached out to General Garganus’s Cultural Advisor Qamar (an Afghan American who once, it is said, headed the Pashto and Dari faculty at the Foreign Service Institute) who led me to one of his people, Abdul, who begins regular half hours of conversation with me tomorrow. But then this afternoon, courtesy calling on the Lieutenant Colonel who heads C-2, the intel wing, found out that there are several U.S. Marines who are native Pashto speakers he can introduce me to. And what about Nimruz and the Baluchis? The American military divide Afghanistan into five regional commands beyond Kabul: North (Mazar-e-Sharif), South (Kandahar), East (Jalalabad) and West (Herat), plus our command, Southwest. The reason there’s a Southwest regional command is, of course, because of the strategic importance of Helmand. But our Command also includes the province of Nimruz, which could not be more dissimilar from Helmand. Helmand is the heart of Pushtun Afghanistan, but Nimruz borders Iran and is Dari speaking, closer to Herat than to Lashkar Gah. Main thing is that Afghanistan’s major concentration of Baluchis lives in Nimruz; like Kurds and Hmong, Baluchis are an aggrieved ethnic minority that desires its own country but, like the Kurds and Hmong, will never get that country because they are scattered over several countries’ borders. The Baluch live in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I’m in charge of Nimruz at the RP (hoping to go meet the Governor), and eager to learn more about the Baluchis. And it turns out that we’ve now got native Baluch-speaking Marines around as well! This should be fun.

These hooches have pretty good acoustics, but that damn Helmand dust...late at night I hear my “VIP” neighbors getting up and coughing, coughing, coughing it out of their lungs. Me, too.

Would bore you to rehash the headlines on Afghanistan; you already know how to read. (By the way, when you get to be the boss and you don’t want to fall asleep over a lot of forbidding, impenetrable reports from all sides, just do what I do and tell your staff you’re illiterate and can only understand oral briefings, because then you can ask stupid questions.) But here are some analytical thoughts from an illiterate that might guide your understanding. (1) Although most but not all U.S. troops are subject to be withdrawn by 2014, as are many other countries‘ troops, this does not mean that there will be no foreign troops here after 2014. NATO still has an ironclad troop commitment after 2014. (2) The more superficial media analysts are hooked on this notion of the Taliban overrunning inept and incompetent Afghan forces in 2014. Actually, Afghan forces are getting better with more independent will every day. But more importantly (3) why do people think morale is so great among the Taliban? Has anyone ever taken a look? They are not monolithic, united, or particularly motivated. What makes brilliant media analysts assume that the Taliban are not demoralized, caught up in intertribal rivalries, alienated against their Quetta-based leadership and incapable of a nationwide challenge to Afghan forces? And (4) Karzai cannot succeed himself in 2014 (or, with luck, sooner) elections. If you ponder these four thoughts a bit, you will be many steps ahead of most of the smartest of the smart in the media and academia.

You walk on rocks or dust everywhere at Camp Leatherneck, and my VIP neighbors’ hooches are identical to mine on the outside, with a small slab of concrete in front of the door opening onto a sea of stones. So every day I’ve been picking up a few smooth or unusual or colored stones and dropping them outside my door to eventually create a rock garden. I wash them off before I throw them onto the rockpile, and damned if after a day they turn beige again from all that dust.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Hard Shell of City Life

Having grown up in a small rural town, and worked on a farm since I was six, I have no desire to return to that life.  Since leaving home at the age of 16, I’ve lived in some of the largest cities in the world, with their hustle and bustle, and impersonal atmosphere, I don’t particularly like that either.  Instead, I’ve chosen to settle in a suburban area; close to the city, but also not far from the quiet of a rural setting.

My time in cities, though, has, I fear, equipped me with a hard shell of cynicism that rears its ugly head from time to time.

Case in point:  recently, as my wife and I were leaving a store in a nearby shopping center, we were approached by a young lady.  She needed help, she pleaded; her car was out of gas, she’d left her debit card at home, and her cousin, who worked in an office in the center wasn’t at work that day.  As I routinely respond to panhandlers on the street, or the people who manage to get into the subway station without enough cash to get out (or so they say), I told her that I had no cash on me.  That’s okay, she quipped, there’s an ATM machine close by.  She even added a bit about her daughter in school, and the fact that her house was too far away to walk.

Now, everything she said just might have been true, but my cynic’s antenna buzzed.  Why would someone leave home and drive such a distance with the tank so low?  Who leaves home without their credit or debit cards, or at least a couple of dollars in their pocket?  Who, having forgotten to bring along their debit card, scouts the area for ATM machines.  One of these I might buy, but that’s three too many coincidences to assuage my suspicious nature.  I just got in my car, closed the door and drove off.

I feel a little guilty; but, only a little.  There will be some naïve, trusting soul who will buy her story and give her five or ten bucks – she might even ask for their name and address to pay them back.  If miracles come true, she might even do it.  But, not me; sorry to be such a hard-hearted curmudgeon, but I’ve lived in cities too long. 

10 Things Your Boss Should Be Saying to You

A great blog from GovLoop that I highly recommend reading

US Ambassador, 3 others, killed in Libya

Chapter Two of WIP: Buffalo Soldier: Incident at Cactus Junction



     The sun was low in the sky when they came over a rise to see the town of Cactus Junction below them.  It wasn’t much to look at; a few structures laid out in a small rectangle, with two dusty intersecting roads serving as the main streets.  As they got closer, it was even less to look at.

     The two streets were rutted from wagon tracks, and would be a sea of mud after the rare rains.  Most of the buildings were wood frame, although a couple were constructed of irregular stones.  A two-story wooden building at the intersection of the roads dominated the area; the town saloon and hotel.  On the left of the saloon was a stone structure that looked from the distance like a store.  A few people could be seen walking on the grassy paths that served as sidewalks.

     When the detachment rode into the town on the road coming from the east, they were at first ignored, but as people got a closer look, they began to stare, and soon, there was a crowd on the grassy sidewalks, walking along pointing and murmuring.  Ben quietly ordered his men to keep their eyes front and pay the crowd no mind.  He rode with his shoulders back and his spine straight.

     Their destination was a small stone building at the end of the east-west road.  Ben could see the crudely lettered sign over the wooden door in the center, ‘Sheriff’s Office and Jail.’  He’d been ordered to report to the Sheriff of Cactus Junction, a man named Angus Woodman.

     He called the detachment to a halt in front of the building, and ordered them to dismount.  They tied their horses and the three mules carrying their equipment and supplies to the two hitching rails.  Ben walked up to the door.  He debated knocking, but decided that since it was a public building, there should be no need.  He pushed the door open.

     A tall, broad shouldered man, with snow white hair and piercing blue eyes was reaching for the door as Ben pushed it open. He looked up and for a moment his eyes widened.

     “I heard the commotion out here,” he said.  “I was just comin’ to take a gander and see what was up.  I reckon I see now what caused the stir.”

     “Are you Sheriff Woodman?” Ben asked.

     “That I am, son; and, who might you be?”

     “I’m First Sergeant Ben Carter.  My detachment was sent here in response to your request for help.”

     “Well now, don’t that beat all,” Woodman said.  “I’d heard they was takin’ colored men in the army, but you the first one I seen.  Sorry, forgot my manners.”  He stuck out a gnarled, sun browned hand.  “Welcome to Cactus Junction, sergeant.”

     Ben had long since become accustomed to the first response of most white people to the sight of a black man armed and in the uniform of the cavalry.  He grasped the man’s hand.  He had a firm grip.

     “If you’d tell me where I can put my men and supplies, sheriff,” he said.  “Then, I’d appreciate knowin’ just what we’re up against here.”

     “Sure thing, son.  The livery stable’s just behind the jail here.  Got a bunkhouse out back, too, oughta be big enough for you fellas.”

     Ben turned and relayed the information to Toussaint.

     “Now, sheriff,” he said.  “Just what is the problem?”

     “You get right down to business, sergeant.  I like that in a man; ain’t got time for all that small talk myself.  Come on in and set down and I’ll tell you.”

     Ben followed the man into the small, crowded office, not much larger than the two barred enclosures to the right of his battered wooden desk.  Wanted posters were nailed to the wall behind the desk.  The cells were empty.  Woodman motioned Ben to a rickety looking chair in front of the desk, and went behind it and sat in a wooden armed chair that looked like it might collapse under his weight.

     “I’d offer you somethin’ to drink,” Woodman said.  “But, ain’t had time to go to the saloon and refill my water jug.  Don’t drink no hard stuff.  Would you like a bite to eat?”

     “That’s fine, sheriff,” Ben said.  “We ate on the trail.”

     “Okay, here’s the situation.  We ain’t got too many people ‘round here.  ‘Bout a hundred live in town; rest live on ranches scattered all over.  Got some folk working a silver mine up in the hills.  They come into town now and then to get supplies or get lickered up.  I don’t usually have much to do; now and then, somebody gets a little too much whisky in his system and starts a fight, and I have to lock ‘im up so he can sober up.  Lately, though, been a gang of outlaws rustling cattle and horses from some of the more isolated ranches.  Ain’t kilt nobody yet, but I figure it’s just a matter of time.  Folks gettin’ real spooked ‘bout it, and demand somethin’ be done.  I’m just one man, and I ain’t gettin’ no younger; so, I sent a request for the cavalry.”

     “I was told this gang’s about ten men,” Ben said.  “Do you have any idea who they are?”

     “Yup, looks to be ‘bout ten; maybe twelve; but, ain’t nobody seen ‘em up close.  Couldn’t tell you if they was white or Mexican.  We ain’t that far from the border; so, it could be a bunch from Mexico.  You think you boys can handle ‘em?”

     “We’ve faced worse,” Ben said.  “I’ll need a list of the places that have been hit.  Then, we’ll start patrolling first thing in the morning.  You have any maps of the area?”

     “I got an old survey map, but, it’s out of date.”

     “Well, I reckon we’ll just have to make do.  I’d appreciate it if you could give me that list in the morning.”

     “I’ll do that, son,” Woodman said.  “There’s just one more thing I got to tell you, and I hope you’ll take it in the spirit it’s meant.  Like I said, I heard they had colored men in the army.  Don’t bother me none; I figure a man’s known by what he can do, not the color of his skin, but, there’s a few folk here in Cactus Junction might feel different.  We ain’t never had no colored folk here, and a lot of people here come west from slave states durin’ the war. They was all poor farmers what didn’t own no slaves, but I reckon they might still have pretty strong feelings about your people, you understand?”

     Ben understood all too well.  They were charged with protecting people who often refused to accord the status of human to them.  It rankled, but he’d taken an oath and would stand by it.

     “I understand, sheriff,” he said.  “We get that back in the towns around Fort Davis, and they got lots of black people there; Indians and Mexicans, too.  Can’t control how people think, but I can assure you, me and my men won’t make any trouble.  We’re here to help you with your rustling problem.  We’ll be out on patrol most of the time, and when we’re in town, I reckon we’ll just stay to ourselves.”

     “That might be best, at least at first.  Give folks time to get used to you.  Mind, not everybody’s likely to be hostile, but better to be cautious.”

     Ben thanked the sheriff and took his leave.  He mounted his horse and pulled the reins, heading around the jail toward the livery stable and bunkhouse.  He ignored the silent, sullen looking group of men and women standing across the street from the jail.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Remembering 9/11

Today is September 11, 2012, eleven years since the day when I woke up in a Seattle hotel room and turned on the TV to an unfolding news story that has impacted not only the United States, but the world.  At first I thought I was watching a promo for some new horror epic, but then the announcer started saying something about a plane accidentally flying into one of the World Trade Towers – it took a few minutes, but I soon knew I was seeing a live event, and I wondered what kind of pilot would fail to see such a large building among so many other large buildings, and what the hell he was doing flying in that area in the first place.

Then, perhaps like millions of other viewers, I watched with horror as that second plane plowed into the second tower.  This was no accident – this was a declaration of war.

The rest of that day went by in somewhat of a blur.  My colleagues and I, who had flown in to Seattle from the other Washington (DC, that is) just the day before on business. We were all anxious to get back to DC, but the skies were empty of all but military jets flying patrol over our major cities.  Even renting a car was out of the question; all the rental cars were gone within the first hour.  So, we waited; waited and watched the television as more information emerged.  What at first had been thought, or reported, as an explosion somewhere in the vicinity of the State Department, had in fact been the jet that plowed into the Pentagon.  We heard later of the crash of another plane in a field in Pennsylvania thanks to the brave sacrifice of a group of passengers.

As the days went on, we learned that the hijackers, who had commandeered passenger planes and deliberately flown them into occupied buildings, were mostly Saudi Arabians, and that they were associated with a shadowy group that many people outside government knew little about, al-Qaeda.  Those of us who followed such events remembered a previous attempt to bomb the World Trade Center by putting explosives in the underground parking garage.  Why, we wondered, was it not apparent that this iconic structure, representing American wealth and influence, would be a target of groups determined to bring our country to its knees?  Why was it so difficult for policymakers and senior officials to accept that some people are prepared to commit any unspeakable act to achieve their goals?  And, when would we quit using our standards and experience to judge the likely action of others?

Eleven years on now, and I look back;  I look back from the perspective of a private citizen who was in government at the time, and in a small way must shoulder some of the responsibility for what has since transpired.  Our reaction to the events of 9/11 were, unfortunately, all too predictable.  We implemented draconian security measures, making airline travel even more of a hassle than it had been, including in one case when I was on a trip shortly after the attacks; an airport security official massaged both of my feet.  Not sure what she thought I might have inside my foot; didn’t want to ask; airport security officials don’t get issued a sense of humor.

We entered into a war in Afghanistan, a country ruled by a bunch of radical freaks that had given safe haven to al-Qaeda’s leader and mastermind, Osama bin Laden.  No one could really argue with that campaign, but like a kid who gets bored with last week’s toys, we started neglecting Afghanistan for a bigger toy, Iraq.  Using a bogus claim of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and even occasional attempts to link Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda, we sent troops into Iraq; a debacle whose full impacts on the military, national security, and our diplomatic image internationally, is yet to be understood.

Things weren’t much better back home. We created the Department of Homeland Security, folding a bunch of agencies under its blanket of control.  The Immigration Service and Customs had to learn to make nice together; for now, they had the same boss, were part of the same outfit, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE – cool acronym, don’t you think.  New rules started popping up; you had to limit liquid or gelled toiletries in your airplane carryon luggage to two-ounce containers in a sealed one-quart Ziploc™ bag; which actually meant a one-quart plastic bag that had the little zip seal, not necessarily the one from that particular company.  Don’t even try to carry a pair of nail clippers with the little rasp attachment on them onto a plane.  You stood to be strip searched if this item was found in your carryon.

I’m compelled to ask at this point, what have we learned from this tragic incident and its aftermath?  I don’t know about you, but I had validated something my study of history has shown me; America’s image of its invulnerability, with oceans on two borders and ‘friendly’ countries on the other two, has always been a myth.  The British invaded the capital during the War of 1812, and the Japanese were able to fire bomb a west coast forest during the early days of World War II.  Somehow, incidents like these get deleted from our minds.  Another thing I learned is that possessing a great amount of military power, without the maturity to use it wisely, and to put emphasis on being a good neighbor rather than the neighborhood bully or boss, doesn’t provide the protection against attack that people try to make you believe.  Unless you’re willing and able to fight everyone in the world at the same time, all that power is actually a weakness.  As the late Rodney King said, “Can’t we all just get along?”

I’m not sure we’ve learned anything actually. That is, alas, the nature of the human species; the ability to learn absolutely nothing from what is clearing a learning event.  So, on this eleventh anniversary of 9/11, I tip my hat to the brave and dedicated first responders who went into harm’s way to help their fellow humans, many of them giving their lives in the process; I give my condolences to those who lost family or friends that day; and, I salute the American people who, for one brief moment, came together as a nation.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Amsterdam: The City of Hip

I've been visiting Amsterdam since the early 1990s.  A city that once catered to every taste - no matter how wild - it has become increasingly tame. It's still a great place to visit.  Read more here.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Work in Progress - Buffalo Soldier: Incident at Cactus Junction

I've started number three in the Buffalo Soldier series. The working title is Incident at Cactus Junction.  Following is chapter one.  Reader comments are welcome.



     “I told you that cinch wasn’t tight enough,” Ben Carter said to the corporal who was struggling to hold a reluctant mule still while he put the bag of provisions across its back.  The corporal, George Toussaint, Ben’s second in command of the detachment, wasn’t amused.

     “It seemed tight ‘nuff back at the fort; musta worked loose during the trip.  You wanta give me a hand, or you just gone stand there and criticize?”

     Ben walked over and picked up a small bag, handing it to the corporal.

     “Make sure it’s good and tight this time,” he said.  “It’s a day’s ride to Cactus Junction, but if we have to keep stopping and picking up stuff your mule drops, we’ll be another week getting there.”

     “Yes, First Sergeant,” Toussaint said, smiling wryly.  “I swear, ever since they done promoted you, Ben Carter, you been gettin’ bossier ever day.”

     Ben looked down at the left sleeve of his blue uniform jacket.  The little diamond sitting in the valley of the three stripes seemed strange.  He’d been promoted just before his troop commander informed him of their current mission.

     “I’m still the same as I always was,” he said.  “You’ll be putting on an extra stripe pretty soon yourself, so you got no call to be ragging on me.”

     “Ain’t raggin’ you; just pointin’ out the truth.  You one bossy man, you know that?”

     They both laughed.  Ben hadn’t gotten along with Toussaint when they first met, but over time, they had become friends.  He trusted the tall, dark-skinned man; had on more than one occasion trusted him with his life.  Their banter was merely a part of their friendship.

     The rest of the detachment waited for them atop the slight rise.  Ben had ordered them to stand fast; no sense spooking the poor mule further.  It had shied when a sidewinder had crossed its path, throwing its load around; and was just beginning to calm down as Toussaint alternated between knotting the rope around its middle and rubbing it behind the ears.  The man had a way with animals.

     “You just keep that danged mule under control,” Ben said.  “Folks in Cactus Junction will be expecting us, and the colonel won’t like it if we show up late.”

     Cactus Junction was a little town in the foothills of the plateau that the border town of El Paso was on, at the Mexican border.  The residents, mostly ranchers with spreads on the arid plains, had sent a request to the cavalry at Fort Davis for assistance to deal with a band of rustlers that had been raiding some of the more remote ranches.  The Ninth Cavalry was the closest army unit that had troops available, so Ben and his detachment were dispatched to provide security to the town.  The colonel felt that a small gang of thieves; and the request for aid had said that there was only about ten men in the gang; would be no trouble for Ben and his men.

     After Toussaint had the load secured, he and Ben remounted their horses and joined the rest.

     Ben had been in command of this small special detachment ever since he’d been dispatched to take charge when the white lieutenant and the sergeant in charge had fallen ill while they were on patrol to locate a marauding band of Comanche warriors in Sandy Gulch.  He’d had a rocky start at first, but during the encounter with Scarred Nose and his warriors, he’d proven himself and they’d grown as close as a group of men could.  They trusted his judgment and followed his commands without hesitation, and he’d learned to trust them.

     “Hey, George, you done got that mule to cooperate?” Hezekiah Layton said with a laugh as they rode up.

     Despite Ben’s best efforts, Layton still managed to have something wrong with his uniform, just as he had when they first met.  Now, his tunic was partially drooping over his belt.

     “Hezekiah,” he said. “Why can’t you ever keep your uniform on right?  Tuck that shirt in.”

     Layton’s dark brown face flushed with embarrassment as he hastily tucked the tunic into his trousers.  It still looked rumpled, but Ben thought it was the best he could expect.

     “Hell, Hezekiah,” Toussaint said.  “You one to be talkin’, you can’t even put yo clothes on right less’n you got help.”

     The men laughed; good natured banter that was the mainstay of their time on patrol.  Layton wasn’t the sharpest dresser in the detachment, but he was reliable in a fight.

     They all were, Ben thought.  There was Malachi Davis; just turned twenty, he was the youngest; a shy kid from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he had a tendency to stutter, but in a fire fight, he was a crack shot.  Lucas Hall, the oldest in the group, had been a riverboat gambler before the war, working in the Creole gambling houses in New Orleans until he’d stabbed a man in an argument over cards, and had joined the cavalry to stay out of jail.  Marcus Scott, a corporal like Toussaint, had been a grocery store stock clerk in Shreveport.  Nat Tatum had worked gulf shrimp boats.  Charles Buckley had worked on a ranch near Fort Worth, Texas.  Samuel Hightower had been born on a ranch in New Mexico; he and his mother had been captured by Apaches and taken to the badlands of West Texas. Tom Holman came from a family that had been owned by a German brewer who operated a brewery near Austin.  Journeyman Kellum, the only northerner in the detachment, was originally from Delaware.  He’d come south after the war because he’d heard that a man could get rich there.

     Each of them had a different story, but in many ways, were much the same; rootless after the Civil War, and shut out of society in the north as well as the former rebel states, they’d joined the army, seeing it as the only way a black man could hold his head up with pride – not to mention get a regular salary – they were out here on the western frontier, making it a safe place for people to live and prosper.

     Ben got them into formation, taking the lead himself, with Toussaint just behind him, and gave the signal to move out at a canter.  Cactus Junction had problems, and it was up to them to sort them out.