Friday, December 31, 2010

Spreading the Cheer

Early on the morning of Friday, December 24, AKA Christmas Eve, the Brass Quintet loaded up our instruments and gear for a weekend trip. Not really a vacation, but it was our first time to travel outside the Kandahar area since arriving in Afghanistan. We caught a helicopter flight to Forward Operating Base Lagman, a very small post north of here. (I can't be too specific about the details for security reasons, of course!)

It is easy to get a bit spoiled after being at KAF for a while, given that we have a boardwalk, multiple gyms, multiple dining facilities, internet access in our rooms, and bath facilities just down the hallway. The smaller FOB's don't necessarily have all those luxuries. Upon arrival, we had "VIP" accomodations, which were a couple of dusty rooms in a solid building, as opposed to a tent. There was a short walk to the latrine and shower, which were not as roomy as what we've gotten used to, and in the cooler weather having to walk over there in the dark was not a pleasant prospect. We arrived just after lunch, but the Chaplain's Assistant who was our "tour guide" was able to let us invade his "stash" so we were able to get a meal anyway. There is one chapel at Lagman, and it seems to have been built by the base's other primary tenants, the Romanians. The sanctuary room is full of Romanian-style icons and paintings. (I'm familiar with these types of images, having visited Romania twice a few years ago. I know one sentence in Romanian, which translates to "I don't speak Romanian." If you're only going to know one, that's not a bad choice.)

We had some time to scout out the facilities--one dining hall, where we would do most of our performing, plus a gym, barber shop, movie room, computer/phone center, and a Greens Beans coffee shop. Lagman is surrounded by mountains, so we appreciated the scenery, and with much less vehicle traffic it is far less dusty than KAF. The dining hall has a different contractor, and I must say that the food quality was quite an improvement from what we've been eating.

We hastily arranged to provide some pre-music for a Christmas Eve service, and that gave us a chance to give some of the Soldiers present a preview of coming attractions, so to speak. It also gave us a chance to listen to some Romanian songs (I don't know if they were hymns or carols) from the Romanian personnel before the service.

Christmas morning, we slept in for a bit to recover from the previous day's hectic travel schedule. Our first performance was for an appreciative lunch crowd, with us crammed into a corner of the festively-decorated dining room. We ran through a large selection of holiday tunes before finishing our set list and joining the chow line to try the turkey, beef, green beans, mashed potatoes, eggnog, pumpkin pie, and other delicacies.

After lunch, we headed to a Christmas party being hosted by the Combat Stress office. It was warm enough by this time that we didn't mind being outdoors, and having people dressed as Santa Clause, Mrs. Clause, and a couple of elves added to the festive feeling. (Photo above, though I wish I had a happier expression on my face!) With the relaxed atmosphere, we ended up sight-reading some of the tunes in our book just to have some variety. (Most of them turned out pretty good too.) After the party, we had some time to relax a bit.

We met up later to play our dinner set, and then we played some carols for a Christmas night gospel service, followed by some music for a midnight mass. I was glad that I had some time in between to get on Skype and talk to some friends and family, during which my parents pointed the webcam to the fresh Nashville snowfall out the window. Normally I would be irritated at missing a rare white Tennessee Christmas, but after all the snow I shoveled last year at Ft. Drum I was fine with the sunny Afghan weather. I'm also glad that modern technology, in the form of a laptop and a portable hard drive, allowed me do spend some of my down time enjoying things like ventriloquist Jeff Dunham's Christmas special, the cartoon classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and one of my all-time favorite films, It's a Wonderful Life.

Sunday was our "day off," and I was grateful for the rest, though we did get together in the evening for more dinner music. This time, however, we put away the caroling music and played some of our regular tunes. Monday afternoon we headed back to KAF, sorry to be leaving the great food and close camaraderie shared by the people on the small base. I was glad to get back to my comfortable bed and indoor plumbing, however. I can't say enough about the people at Lagman, though--they went out of their way to make us feel welcome and they seemed to really appreciate having their own music group for a few days. Hopefully we can make it back before too long!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmastime at KAF

Last week was the busiest week we've had at Kandahar Air Field in terms of our performance schedule. Various groups from the band, including my brass quintet, spent time every day performing for the troops. As a musician, that's one of the things I enjoy about Christmas: there is so much music associated with the holiday, and the opens up lots of opportunities to perform. On Saturday, 18 December, we had a busy schedule, playing at a party for an Army Engineering company. As soon as we arrived, the "chorus" that they had assembled was ready to sing along to our accompaniment of "Jingle Bells" and "Winter Wonderland." We performed music throughout the party before partaking of lunch ourselves.

Afterwards, we headed to the boardwalk to set up for the 10th Mountain Division Band's Christmas Concert. This would be an afternoon performance of several of our groups all in one place: the Brass Quintet, the Dixieland Band, the Tuba/Euphonium Quartet, and the Rock Band. We had a surprisingly large crowd, and most of them stayed for the whole show. After the BQ's opening segment, I had to hurry to the seating area to help take care of the video recording of the concert. I ended up getting interviewed by the camera crew from Armed Forces Network that was covering the event. Video of the concert can be found here and here, though in one of the videos they incorrectly identify me as playing in the "brass quartet."

Sunday, we began our caroling mission. Our small ensembles headed to various locations to play Christmas music for anyone who cared to listen. We did this all through the week. Because there are numerous nations represented here, there was an aspect of international goodwill to the performances. In addition to playing at the boardwalk, the PX, the RC-South compound, and the main dining facilities, we also played for a group of Canadian aircraft mechanics by the flightline and inside the Canadian military compound. Another performance found us entertaining the line that stretched outside the local Tim Horton's, one of Canada's most popular coffee shop chains. Before we left we had been provided with free chocolate chip muffins and coffee/hot chocolate from the staff. (Needless to say, I have now become a fan of Tim Horton's.) We also had a friendly reception from the Australian troops inside their office area. They handed out small koala-doll clips clutching candy canes to us. We were informed that they know many of the holiday tunes that we do, although they have to "Australianize" the lyrics to adjust for the unusual animals that are found there, and to adjust the wintry stuff for their summer December climate. One of our audience members was a Chaplain who had arrived the night before, and we had to caution him that brass quintet performances were an exception rather than the rule at KAF! One positive side to these types of performances is that we hope to open up doors for later performance opportunities throughout the deployment.

Speaking of which, in the next blog I'll write about the trip we took for the Christmas weekend!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The USO Tour Comes To Town

Academy Award-winning actor and comedian Robin Williams entertains the troops at KAF.
The day after we were visited by the Slovakian President, we had some more visitors--this time entertainers who were part of a USO tour. I'm a big fan of the USO--my first experience with them was on my way to basic training when I had a layover at the St. Louis airport and found the USO station there. They provided military personnel with a comfortable place to rest, watch television, and have free food and beverages. Last year when I was stranded for nearly two days in Philadelphia due to heavy snow, the USO made hanging out at the airport much easier, especially with the easy access to e-mail so I could notify family and friends what was happening.
But, back to the main story. This tour had a group of celebrities and entertainers who were traveling around various bases in Iraq and Afghanistan performing for the troops and showing their appreciation. The opening remarks of the show were provided by Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (the highest-ranking military officer and senior military advisor to the President), and his wife. They introduced the MC for the evening, cycling superstar Lance Armstrong. He is one of the most inspiring figures in sports in recent years, having overcome cancer to win seven Tours de France, the only cyclist to have done so, and his Livestrong foundation has done much to promote cancer treatments and research. He gave some short introductory comments, talking about running along the fenceline and ignoring various warning signs about restricted areas along the gravel road. He then introduced the first performer, comedian Kathleen Madigan. She was very funny, and like pretty much everyone else (except ADM and Mrs. Mullen) too blue for network television. She gave a shout out to the Canadians in the audience, observing that most Americans think of Canada the way they think of the attic--"you forget it's up there, but then you look and realize there's some pretty cool (stuff)." She also wondered, after hearing about the schools and roads and utilities that are being built by the military, what it would take for us to invade and rebuild the city of Detroit.
She was followed by Lewis Black, introduced by Armstrong as the "most negative man in America." He corrected the intro, saying that he isn't negative, just angry. The famously jittery comedian opined on how an iPhone is a "great computer and a lousy phone," and a Droid is "a great phone and a lousy computer," and told of his first USO tour, where someone made the extremely poor decision to put him on the program following Vince Gill and Amy Grant. (As a Nashville resident, I found that story very amusing.)
Speaking of Nashville, my hometown was represented by Kix Brooks, formerly half of mega-country duo Brooks & Dunn, and songwriter Bob DiPiero, who though not famous as a performer, has written about fifteen number one songs, including songs for Martina McBride, B & D, Faith Hill, and Montgomery Gentry. He's actually a pretty good performer, too, and sang his songs "Church on Cumberland Road" and "Gone." Brooks added two of his biggest hits, "Red Dirt Road" and "Only In America." Then it was time for the main event.
The final performer of the evening was one of the world's funniest men, Oscar-winning actor and stand-up comedian Robin Williams. Despite recently having a heart valve replacement, he was as energetic as ever, bouncing around the stage in a sweatsuit and a full beard. (He'd make a funny Santa Claus, Hollywood.) I made the mistake of not waiting around after the show, but a couple of the guys in the band did stay and said he made sure to sign anything and shake every hand he could. He's been described as our "number one fan," and I certainly gained a new level of respect for his dedication. His show was, of course, hysterically funny, and I won't say much more about it other than to mention that he did an impression of his character "Mrs. Doubtfire" as if she were a porn star.
All in all, it was a fun evening and definitely a nice change of pace for us. Even in the cold air, it seemed everyone had a good time. Just don't tell Lewis Black that I have an iPhone.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Executive Visit

I was recently asked if the band had played for any VIP's since arriving at Kandahar Air Field, and until this past Wednesday, December 15, the answer was "no." But that changed this week when we were told that Wednesday, Ivan Gasparovic, the President of the Slovak Republic (more commonly called Slovakia) would be visiting the base. I don't know the specific purpose of his visit, but there is a sizable contingent of Slovakian Soldiers at KAF.

The band members met early Wednesday morning to prepare for the arrival. We hauled our chairs, music stands, and instruments over to the reception area by the runway. I made sure to wear several layers under the uniform to protect against the biting cold air. Once we had our things set up, it was a matter of waiting for the arrival. A group of Slovakian troops were situated next to us holding their flag. We were given updates every so often: "Twenty minutes," "ten minutes," and so on. Our set list alternated between typical Sousa marches and Fillmore marches and Christmas songs. I have no idea if any of our popular Christmas music is known in Slovakia, but playing music helped us ignore the cold so we didn't worry about that too much. Our commander made sure to include Sousa's "Hands Across the Sea" march, which was written to commemorate international friendship. What didn't help was that about the time we started playing, the wind began to blow. On one of the Christmas tunes, my stand nearly blew over and the other trombonist held my stand while I played!

Finally, the large white airplane with the Slovakian flag and the words SLOVAK REPUBLIC painted on the side pulled up behind where we were sitting. We continued waiting while...nothing happened. After an uncomfortably long wait we found out that they were still waiting for someone to roll out the steps to the airplane door! When the mobile walkway finally emerged, it seemed like they took two or three tries at the plane's front door before moving to the middle exit. I'm sure there was a good reason for it, but it made the event a little more amusing for us.

When the official party finally began walking toward the reception area, we began to play the Slovakian anthem "Lightning Over the Tatras." Members of the Slovakian press (I presume) made sure to get footage of the band while we played, but the President and much of his entourage quickly moved inside, and I can't blame them given the cold weather. When they returned to get into the fleet of cars that would transport them around the post, President Gasparovic made sure to give the band a salute. It's always nice to have the man of the hour acknowledge the band! Once the cars pulled away, we began to pack up and get ready for the rest of the otherwise normal workday. Later, though, we found out about some more visitors who would be coming Thursday, and those visitors will be the subject of the next blog!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Building the Perfect...Tent?!

Wow, time is flying--I didn't realize it's been ten days since my last post. Recent days have been busy, between rehearsals, a Saturday lunch performance with the Brass Quintet, and the band's latest project: a building. Or, rather, tent.

One of the biggest obstacles we've had to overcome since our arrival is that Kandahar Air Field has not yet had a band stationed here. Because of that, there is no facility set aside for the band to use. The various ensembles in the band have used classrooms, dining halls, the Fest Tent, the Morale-Welfare-Recreation center, the USO reading room, unoccupied sleeping quarters, bomb shelters, and open parking lots to rehearse, practice, and prepare. Doing so has meant that we have had to lug our instruments and equipment everywhere we go and that our work schedule is often at the mercy of what room is available and when. And with the recent dropping of temperatures, coupled with a few days of very dusty air, practicing outdoors is not as feasible as it used to be. Almost since we got here we've been negotiating and maneuvering to get a location just for us.

That began to become a reality this past Saturday, December 11 when the workers from the KAF carpentry shop arrived to start laying down the wooden floor in an open spot we were able to reserve. We had picked up the lumber from the freight yard a few weeks ago, and in that time they had cut boards and supports to build a floor.

Sunday, the tent arrived. The entire complex and all the necessary gear to set it up fit on a medium-size trailer. First, a tarp was laid out on the wooden floor, and a large deflated black ballon (or bladder, if you will) was placed on the tarp. We wheeled the main tent structure, which was "collapsed" into a tall column, into the center of the floor. Several of us pulled the edges of the tent to the edge of the floor, stretching the outer skin and making visible the support trusses that would give it stability. An air pump was connected to the bladder, and in a matter of minutes the tent began to take shape as the balloon stretched the structure to its full size. The full procedure took about thirty minutes. We actually had to deflate the tent the first time to get the front and rear entrance points attached and aligned properly, so it took two tries before we could begin deflating the balloon. Once deflated, it was simple to pull the balloon out, leaving the tent standing on its own support structure.

The rest of Sunday afternoon was spent hammering in stakes around the perimeter of the tent to hold it firmly in place and attaching the interior metal supports to keep the roof from collapsing. By the end of the day, the civilian experts who were assisting us with the tent decided that the floor was a little too small for the tent and we'd need more lumber.

Monday morning, we started inside to finish the interior supports and began setting up the environmental controls. The tent has its own generator for power, with large tubes connected to an air conditioner/heater. We installed the porous flexible tube that substitutes for air ducts, and hung the flourescent lights from the ceiling. By that point, the carpenters were back, cutting more wood to extend the floor around the tent. This meant that all the hammering we had done Sunday had to be pulled up and redone, but by the end of the day we were finished and the tent was solidly in place.

I haven't even mentioned the Velcro. The front and side entrances are attached with Velcro. This is not Velcro like you see at craft shops, or even the Velcro that is used on our uniforms. This is heavy-duty, massively strong Velcro. I think I could attach the Velcro on my uniform sleeves to the Velcro on this tent and hang from it. (Note: I did not actually try do this.) We spent much of our two days unsticking and resticking Velcro, and I think we are all pretty much tired of dealing with that substance for a while.

But we have a "home," for the time being. While it is not the best permanent solution, it gives us our own place to do much of the work we are here to do. Stay tuned, as we hope to install some practice rooms before too long....

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Your 2010 Military Care Package Guide

A few people have asked me about what types of things are good to mail to Soldiers overseas. I can attest to the fact that it is a great feeling to get mail here, even if it's from people you don't know that well. Not only is it nice to get letters, newspaper clippings, and snack food, but the knowledge that someone took the time to send something to you always makes the day a little better. Mail is delivered here seven days a week, even on holidays, so when I got packages on Thanksgiving Day it made the holiday that much more memorable. They recommend sending Christmas items by December 7. Not that there's anything wrong with getting stuff after Christmas also. There are handy tips about the mailing process at the US Postal Service website and if you do a Google search on "care packages" you'll find several websites with ideas and information. Here are some other guidelines:

*One of the guidelines for sending items to Afghanistan is that a Soldier's last name goes first. This helps the mail clerks with keeping things organized.

*Don't put a recipient's rank on the package.

*Don't send things with batteries in them.

*Don't send pornographic materials. (I partly wonder if this is because there periodicals...available at the PX and they don't want you cutting into their market. I don't buy any of them, but they're there.)

*Don't send flammable or explosive items, i.e. lighter fluid, gunpowder, bleach.

*Microwaves are not available here so items that require cooking, like Ramen noodles, are not good things to send unless you know someone who likes to eat them cold and/or raw.

*Don't send fresh fruit. It may not be fresh when it arrives.

*Prepackaged foods are good because they are less likely to spoil. Beef jerky is popular here.

*Homemade foods (cookies, brownies, etc.) are good because...well, they're good.

*If they are soft or crumbly, like Pop Tarts or Little Debbie snacks, put them in some kind of solid container to protect them.

*The cereal selection isn't good here, so I asked my parents to send some Honey Nut Cheerios, which they sent in the plastic bag from inside the box. Made breakfast a lot better!

*Some things, like raisins, gummy stuff, or big puffy marshmallows, are fine for sending, though they aren't good things to send to me because I just don't care for them. If I get them, I share them with others who do like them.

*Someone sent me a foot-tall Christmas tree and some decorating items, so decorations aren't in demand in my room.

*DVDs and CDs are good because they are relatively small, durable, and provide entertainment. Paperback books are also a very good option. Most people here have laptop computers with disc drives. Even though I stored a lot of movies, music, and television shows on my computer, portable hard drive, and iPhone, it's always nice to have another option to throw in there and enjoy during my down time.

*Foot powder, hand lotion, Band Aids, and Kleenex are always good options.

*Paper and envelopes are hard to come by here, so if you want a response by mail stationery is a fine thing to send as well.

If you have other ideas or questions, leave a comment or email me!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Q&A, part FIVE

They're adding some new shops to KAF's boardwalk area, and I thought this sign was amusing.
It's holiday season now, and we're all spending more time on preparing Christmas carols and other seasonal songs to play for the troops. We've also spent some time doing some training with members of the nearby Afghan National Army Band, and I expect I'll write more about that as it develops. I will say that even though we have a translator, it does test everyone's skill at non-verbal communication since they don't speak English and none of us speak Dari. Now, it's time for a couple more questions!

What's with the odd time difference between Afghanistan and the United States?

I don't know how the time zones in this part of the world were established-it may have something to do with railroad schedules way back when, and possibly be influenced by the time when nearby Pakistan and India were British colonies. But currently, since Afghanistan does not observe Daylight Savings Time, the whole country is nine and a half hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone in the United States. According to this time zone map, it seems we are sandwiched in an odd area and being offset by 30 minutes was someone's attempt to compensate for this. India is one hour ahead of us, so they also are "in the cracks" with respect to the US time zones. Pakistan, sandwiched between India and Afghanistan, is ten hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone, 30 minutes ahead of Afghanistan and 30 behind India. Iran, immediately to our west, is one hour behind us, and 30 minutes behind them is Saudi Arabia. Since most of my family is in the Central Time Zone in Tennessee (one of the few states to be split between two time zones), they are ten and a half hours behind me, which makes planning phone calls on Skype a bit tricky sometimes. Interestingly, the island of Newfoundland in Canada has its own time zone, which is also 30 minutes ahead of Labrador to the west.

Do you have normal working hours, or are you "on call" all of the time?

We have somewhat stable hours most of the time, though the nature of the job can make it unpredictable. Like performing musicians in the US, our schedule is often dictated by when we have to perform regardless of whether or not it's personally convenient. On weekdays we typically all meet up in the morning to go over the day's schedule, and then again after lunch to update everyone on any changes and get briefed for the next day. After each meeting, we usually have time to do individual practice, group rehearsal, or take care of any office work that might need to be done, which in my case is usually something related to supply, i.e. filling out paperwork for the battalion requesting new ink for the printer or valve oil for the trumpets. On weekends we have the mornings off but still meet up in the afternoon. Since our performances have ranged from dinner music for a General's reception to morning ceremonies to lunch entertainment, we will often have to adjust the schedule accordingly. And sometimes they'll find ways to surprise us by springing a change at the last minute. That can make things frustrating, though such changes generally come from outside the band, and may be impacted by events and decisions that are out of our field of view. Most days, though, things have been much more stable the past few weeks than they were when we first arrived and everyone was figuring out how to best make things work. Famous last words....

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks in Kandahar

L-R: SSG Erik Winters, horn; SPC Jesse Holmes, tuba; SPC James Leggett and SPC Joshua Rux, trumpets; SSG David Proctor, trombone
Today the United States observes its Thanksgiving holiday, and for the American Soldiers at Kandahar Air Field the holiday was a welcome change from the normal workday. For those of us in the 10th Mountain Division Band, it was a great opportunity to use our skills to boost the morale of the troops. My brass quintet (informally dubbed "The Bunker Brass") started the day by playing at an ecumenical Thanksgiving service at one of the chapels. Though not a formal "church service," this event involved several American chaplains (and, surprisingly, a couple of British chaplains too!) speaking, reading scriptures, and leading songs about being thankful.

As soon as the service was over, we threw our instruments, music, and stands into a truck and headed over to the nearby Niagara Dining Facility, which typically serves "American" food and displays American programming on the TV screens (usually sports, which to my interest included a Pre-Season NIT basketball game between Virginia Commonwealth University and my alma mater, the 24th-ranked University of Tennessee). The building was set aside for Thanksgiving lunch, and already a very, very long line was waiting to get in. We walked in through an exit--the easiest way to get in--and set up along the back wall so we could play some music to entertain the lunch crowd. Our set this time consisted of a wide variety of selections, with an emphasis on fun, upbeat music: "Ain't Misbehavin," "The Pink Panther," "Satin Doll," "The Colonel Bogey March," "The Beer-Barrel Polka," and "Cartoon Symphony," a collection of themes from shows like "The Simpsons," "Family Guy," "Animaniacs," "The Flintstones," and "The Jetsons." Even though we like to classify these types of performances as "music to be ignored by," or perhaps "innocuous enough to not be annoying," many in the crowd seemed to appreciate having some live music to make the day a little more festive. Many also stopped by to get pictures of the group. We made sure to have our pictures taken by the ice sculptures that were placed in the center of the hall as decoration.

Between sets, we were able to get lunch. The food line today was not manned by the typical facility employees, but by members of the US Navy, and rather than the normal menu, they had traditional Thanksgiving food: turkey, dressing, ham, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, gravy, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, etc. And it was delicious! I decided that oversleeping a little and thus having only a couple of strawberry Pop-Tarts (courtesy of a care package!) for breakfast was a good thing, as I had plenty of room to eat a lot for lunch. It wasn't like being home with family, but it was certainly more enjoyable than a typical lunch here. Afterward, as we were loading the truck, a somewhat elderly civilian in a red plaid shirt and with a grey-ish beard walked out and thanked us for playing, prompting SPC Holmes to comment, "Hey, that's nice, we play for Thanksgiving and get thanked by Santa Claus!"

As one of our other band members who joined us for lunch mentioned, the band is our family right now, and even when we get on each other's nerves we can still sit back and enjoy a meal and be thankful that we have each other and that we have a mission of bringing music to other members of the Armed Forces. And I am thankful that I have so many friends and family members back home who have been so supportive during these first weeks of our deployment here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Q and A, Part 4

I've received a few more questions, so here goes....

What do you think about the new uniforms?

We were issued new uniforms a few weeks before we left. The new pattern, Multi-Cam, was designed to blend better in the rugged environment of Afghanistan than the current standard issue, the digital-patterned Army Combat Uniform. The new pattern is similar to the old Battle Dress Uniform they had when I joined, but is not as dark and has more brown and no black. The cut of the uniform is similar, but they've redesigned the collar to lay flat a bit better, the "hook and loop" fasteners (a non-copyrighted way of referring to Velcro) down the front are a bit smaller, and they've replaced the fasteners on the pants cargo pockets with buttons. The material is also coated with materials to make them flame-retardant and insect-repellant. So far, I like them--they look better, they're stitched a bit better, and the material feels a bit more comfortable. They're sized a bit differently, but I was able to get the right size so they fit well. I'd prefer for them to make this the standard issue uniform. They also have new "mountain boots" that are supposed to go with these, but due to a supply shortage they weren't able to issue them to non-combat troops, so we're still using the tan desert boots. That's also fine by me; I have not heard good things about the wear or durability of the new boots.

Do you always have to wear your glasses?

Yes, I do. If you know me well, you know that I'm quite near-sighted. (I didn't inherit my paternal grandfather's military-pilot-perfect vision...and neither did any of his other grandchildren!) Most of the time I prefer to wear contact lenses, unless I'm sleeping. However, military policy prohibits the wear of contact lenses in combat zones and with the amount of dust here, that's most likely for the best. Most of the time I wear normal eyeglasses, but during the day when I'm outdoors I wear polarized, dark ballistic protective lenses that have prescription inserts attached. They're large enough that they completely cover my eyes from the very bright sunlight. (Low humidity=very few cloudy days)

What provisions are made for worship services?

There are services and classes all through the week at the two main chapels on the post. Catholic services are held just about everyday, and Sundays are booked solid with services such as Traditional Protestant, Contemporary Protestant, Latter-Day Saints, church of Christ, as well as services for other faiths like Judaism and Islam. Many of the services are run by chaplains, but there are Soldiers and civilians who are involved as well. There's a Wednesday night class that I want to check out as well sometime. Also, from time to time we can hear the Muslim prayers over the loudspeakers from the Afghan section of the base. (I presume they're in Arabic, not Dari or Pashto, which are the main languages in Afghanistan.)

Do you have access to beverages like sweet tea and Coca-Cola?

I have not yet found sweet iced tea, though there is a military-focused coffee company called Green Beans that has a couple of shops here. (LOVE the chocolate smoothies!) They have iced tea that I have yet to try but I hear it's the best thing on the menu. I'll take the plunge soon. We do have soft drinks at the dining facilities, usually Coke, Sprite, Fanta orange, and "Coke light," which is the equivalent of diet. They come from a distributor in Kabul, and because they aren't subject to the dietary squeamishness of the US, they still use sugar rather than corn syrup in the recipe. The facility closest to where I now live is the most "American" dining hall, and up until a few days ago they also had regular A&W root beer, shipped straight from Texas. I guess their supply ran out and they have yet to get more. A real shame, as root beer is my favorite soft drink.

That's all for this installment. Thanks for reading, and please continue to send any questions you have!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Power To Move You, Part 2

Maybe I'll get to stay here for a little while longer. I, and four other people in the band, moved out of the temporary tents we had been staying in and moved into the "mods," modular housing that is more permanent and has a few more creature comforts. The walls are sturdier, there is air conditioning and heating, the bathrooms are in the same building and contain a 50-gallon water heater (consistently warm showers!), and instead of a large open room with who knows how many other people, these rooms can comfortably hold four. Of course, there are six of us in here (one of whom is not in the band but was placed here with us) but we're learning how to make it work. There are two single beds, one of which is mine, and two sets of bunk beds, and some limited closet space. There is also a small refrigerator which just so happens to be next to my bed. I can use it as a bed-side table too.
There is also internet available here; it isn't great but I'm typing this from my room instead of the USO or an internet cafe. I hope to be able to post photos now as well.
I didn't sleep all that well last night, but I think that was more just getting used to the new environment than anything about the room. It was nice not waking up to the "alarm clock symphony" that resulted from having about 80 different people trying to wake up at about the same time in the tents. (Or worse, waking up a couple of hours earlier than I had to!) We are closer to the Morale area, the Boardwalk, the main laundry facility, and the gyms, so even though we might not get quite as much exercise, getting things done should be a bit easier. Now we just have to hope they don't decide to move us all from one mod to another....

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Q and A, part 3

How do your instruments react to all the dust?
So far, it hasn't been too hard on them. It remains to be seen, of course, how they will do over the coming months, but so far I haven't had to do much beyond normal maintenance on the trombone. The outside of the case, however, is absolutely filthy.

Do you drink tap water or bottled water?
All of the drinking water here is bottled. They ship in truckloads of the stuff everyday. Sometimes it might be bottled by a subsidiary of Coca-Cola in Kabul, or it might be from Dibba, a company in Fujaira, UAE. In fact, all of the water we use here is brought in by truck, including the water we use for showers and sinks. It's considered "non-potable:" clean enough to shower or brush your teeth, but not for drinking. The bottled water is available all over the post at no charge--just find a stash and grab one.

Do you have time to practice?
Most days we do. Almost everyday I've been here we've had a quintet rehearsal, a larger group rehearsal (like the ceremonial band or brass ensemble), or individual practice time. While we do have to take time to do the various office jobs that help the band run, we've been fortunate that once things got established, we've had a few hours nearly everyday to focus on the musical mission. The biggest drawback is that Kandahar has no dedicated "band facility," so we have been using classroom tents, the Fest Tent, protective bunkers, and an abandoned meat locker as practice facilities, and we have to keep our instruments locked in a big protective container to keep them secure when they aren't in use.

Are the facilities for military only, or do civilians use them too?
Almost everything here is open to military and civilians, though there are restricted areas. Even so, those may be open to certain contractors who have the proper clearance. Also, there are very few areas that aren't open to people from the various nations that are represented here.

That's all for today, so keep asking and I'll write another Q and A installment soon!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Patch

Today is Veteran's Day, and we celebrated in an unusual way at Kandahar Air Field. We had a ceremony during which the members of the 10th Mountain Division were officially awarded their wartime service patch, or as it's commonly called, the "combat patch." Normally, a Soldier wears the patch representing the unit to which he/she is assigned on the left shoulder. After serving with that unit in a combat zone, the Soldier is authorized to wear that unit's patch on the right shoulder for the remainder of th Soldier's career. Thus, wearing a patch on the right shoulder is the sign that a Soldier is a combat veteran. The Army is the only US military service that observes this tradition.
The official patch of the 10th Mountain Division is displayed to the right. The red, white, and blue colors reflect the national colors of the USA. The shape of a patch is meant to evoke a powder keg, which symbolizes the explosiveness of the division's soldiers. The crossed bayonets symbolize the Infantry, the core fighting element of the division, and the shape of the bayonets forms an X, also representing the Roman numeral for 10. And the main patch is paired with a "MOUNTAIN" tab, denoting it as the only such division in the Army.
My brass quintet was providing music for the ceremony, and we played a couple of marches as introductory music. (This also served as an attempt to prevent the Division Command Sergeant Major from another rendition of "Friends In Low Places." Don't ask me what prompted that!) After playing the NATO Hymn, we waited while the Division Commander, MG Terry, gave a speech about the significance of the occasion. We then began playing "America the Beautiful" while combat patches were placed on the youngest officer, warrant officer, NCO, and enlisted soldier, and a Canadian soldier who represented the international force. Then leaders of various units began moving to give patches to the other Soldiers in their units. To our surprise, the Division and HQ Battalion command staff moved to give patches to the members of the quintet--while we were playing! (We weren't expecting that to happen!) I had my spare patch in my right sleeve pocket, so as my presenter (I think it was Battalion Commander LTC Bennett, but I can't be sure) approached, I waited until there was a spot in the music where I wasn't playing anything critical, quickly pulled the patch out of my pocket, handed it to him, and continued playing, trying hard not to move my upper right arm while manipulating the slide as he placed the patch on my shoulder. At least now I'll always remember getting my "combat patch" while playing "America the Beautiful."
And to any Veterans who happen to be reading this, many thanks for the sacrifices you made, and I am proud to be among your ranks!

The Power To Move You

Yesterday was a great snapshot of what life can be like when you're deployed in a combat zone. Our brass quintet had a rehearsal in the morning, and after lunch and a quick unit meeting to iron out the rest of the day's schedule, I had a little bit of free time. I went back to our tent to change clothes and go do a quick workout at the gym. (By the way, this was my first time trying out the NATO-operated gym, which is a very nice facility with fairly new weights and equipment. The trick is that all the weight measurements are in kilos rather than pounds, which takes a bit of an adjustment.) My plan was to shower and then go to a briefing we had at 1600 (4 pm) about emergency medical procedures, but it was not to be.
Upon returning to the tent, I was informed that we had to move. Not to our eventual permanent door into another tent. Apparently they are planning to close down the place we had been staying, and we had until that night to move out. So those of us who were there quickly packed our things together and hauled them next door, hoping to quickly claim a good bunk. I managed to succeed, getting one with a firm mattress and close access to a plug that I can use for my computer and 1 TB hard drive. Oddly enough, the day before I had moved to another bunk in the old tent because another person had moved out and I wanted to have the plugs he'd been using. I figured that moving bunks would almost certainly ensure that we'd be leaving the tent soon. I just hadn't counted on making such a short move or doing so with such little notice. With the help of some of the other guys, I managed to make it to the briefing more or less on time.
If you like living where even your sleeping location can change suddenly, Kandahar Air Field is the place for you!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Q and A, part 2

Some more questions from my Facebook page:
How's the weather?
Kandahar is in the southern part of Afghanistan, sandwiched between Pakistan and Iran. The conditions here are mostly desert: very dry, and very, very dusty. When we first arrived, a front was actually bringing in a lot of dust, and the air was thick with the stuff. Week before last we had a little rain and that helped clean things up a bit, and the air is much clearer now. During the summer the temperatures can get into the low 100's F, but right now we're hitting high 70's-low 80's during the day. Also, because of the dry air, nighttime cools off quickly, and temperatures can get down to the 40's. I think some nights we've actually made it to the 30's! Needless to say, the conditions can be a bit harsh on the sinuses. But if you like sunshine, this is a place you should check out!

Are facilities staffed by Americans, or locals?
It depends. While there are American civilians here, most of them are contractors who are doing other work. Most of the people in the shops and restaurants are not American, though I'm not always certain that they are Afghans. It can be difficult to tell as Afghanistan has several ethnic groups which may speak different languages, though most of the people who work around here know at least basic English. I think some of the workers may be immigrants from Pakistan or India.

What other allied countries are represented at Kandahar?
There are several, and I'll almost certainly leave some out, but the ones I have seen include: Bulgaria, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Romania, Australia, Slovakia, Turkey, New Zealand, and of course Afghanistan. I haven't had much interaction with those from non-English-speaking countries, though I'm sure I'll have a chance to practice my rudimentary French, or to inform the Romanians that the only sentence I know in Romanian is "I don't speak Romanian."

Do the locals ever request "Free Bird"?
Not to my knowledge, but I'll try and learn the Dari and Pashto (both forms of Persian that are spoken here) for "Free Bird" just to be sure!

Keep asking, and there's more to come!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Q and A, part 1

I recently posted a notice on Facebook inviting people to ask any questions they had about my experience in Afghanistan, so here's the first installment of my answers! Keep the questions coming!

What's the culture like in Afghanistan?
Unfortunately I've spent almost all my time on Kandahar Air Field, so I haven't yet personally experienced much of the Afghan culture. I do expect that to change the longer I'm here, so I'll try and write more about it when it happens. At our first performance a couple of weeks ago, we did have an opportunity to interact with some of the Afghan soldiers, and they seemed very warm, friendly, and interested in learning more about how we do things.

What's it like living on the base?
It's usually pretty relaxed. We are required to carry our weapons (in my case, an M-16 rifle) with us unless we are doing "physical training" (i.e. exercise) but we don't have to wear helmets unless riding in "tactical vehicles" and we don't wear body armor unless we leave the base. There are several dining facilities, as well as a USO lounge, internet cafe, multiple gyms, and restaurants like TGI Friday's, KFC, and a European place called Echoes. There is a game room, college education center, and classes like Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University and salsa dancing are offered. All of this, of course, is for when we have free time and are not doing office work, rehearsal, or performing/otherwise involved in a "mission."

Can you travel off the base?
Generally not, unless we are on official business.

That's all I have time for now, but more to come later! Again, feel free to ask anything!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Playing For the Brass

"Brass," in this sense, being "very high-ranking people." Today was the big Transfer of Authority ceremony, in which Major General Terry, commander of the 10th Mountain Division, took command of military operations in the southern region of Afghanistan. This is the first time this part of the country has been overseen by the US Military. My brass quintet was there to participate in the festivities, mainly to provide music prior to the start of the ceremony and to play the Afghan national anthem (which sounds very much like a remnant of the days of Soviet occupation, very heavy and imposing), the NATO hymn (representing the nations of the International Security Assistance Force), and the 10th Mountain Division song, "Climb To Glory."
Interestingly, one Air Force person (don't remember his rank!) asked if we took requests and wondered if we could do "the Monty Python theme." We were able to oblige, as "Monty Python's Flying Circus" used John Philip Sousa's "Liberty Bell March" as its theme music, and that march was a couple of slots away in our rotation.
The ceremony was held in the "Fest Tent," which is basically a large concrete slab with a "skin" stretched over a metal frame, with a big wooden stage and lots of folding chairs. Surprisingly, this environment provided very good acoustics for our quintet, helping us to sound "big" without overpowering the rest of the room. It was easy for us to get comfortable and we had one of our better performances. When several Generals, including the man in charge of Afghan military operations (GEN Petraeus), regional governors, and other dignitaries are present, it's good to play well! After we played honors for the General, prayers were offered by a local Muslim cleric and a (Christian) US Army Chaplain, and there were speeches, including the outgoing British General Carter and MG Terry. Then the 10th MTN DIV flag was unfurled, symbolically displaying the Division's "arrival." The only big letdown was that after the ceremony, we found out our transportation had technical problems and we had to walk back to our storage area, hauling our instruments with us. That's life in a deployed environment--always unpredictable!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Garden Party

This past Wednesday night we had our first official performance since arriving in Kandahar--a garden party. It was off the main base, but not too far down the road. The event was to honor the British General who is departing when the US takes over the operational control of the region we are in. Our commander was helping out with the barbeque, and one of our trumpet players (SPC James Leggett) joined him so they both left early. This gave Leggett a chance to talk with some of the Afghan military personnel and develop quite a rapport with them. When we arrived, we set up our chairs, music stands, and instruments to provide the dinner music. We were able to take a few breaks to eat, and the flat bread and chicken were quite good. There was also rice and what appeared to be a kind of potato salad. I didn't have time to try out any of the other food. The chilly air didn't make for optimal playing conditions, although the compound we were in was far less dusty than Kandahar Air Field. (My sinuses reacted to something over there and clogged up, so I was uncomfortable almost the whole time. Not so much that I was unable to play, but I was definitely not at my best.) All things considered, we left a good impression and the British Colonel who was coordinating the event seemed pleased with how it went. He suggested we get together with the Afghan military band and do some work with them, so perhaps that will allow us some more international interaction.

Also, a few days ago I got my first haircut here. The woman who cut my hair was named "Nazgul," so now I can tell people that I've had my haircut by a Ring Wraith. (Don't get me wrong though--she did a great job cutting my hair!)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Down With The Sickness

I figured it would happen sooner or later: I got sick. Actually, it was probably more of an allergy, but whatever it is knocked me down for a bit. I'm sure there were a number of contributing factors: jetlag, very hot days, very cold nights, frequent nighttime flyovers by combat aircraft (we are at a military air field, after all) making for difficult sleep, thick amounts of dust, and frequently cold showers. Did I mention the daily dose of doxycycline that we have to take to ward off malaria? Anyway, I was congested yesterday and felt awful, but we still managed to get in a couple of rehearsals which were a bit better than the past couple of days. During a break in the afternoon, before taking a much-needed nap, I thought I'd swing around the corner from our tent to the Dutch PX to see if they had any medication I could use. Closed Tuesday for Inventory. We apologize for any inconvenience. Figures.
I had someone drive me to the American PX after our last rehearsal and managed to stock up on NyQuil, DayQuil, allergy medication, and a bottle of saline nasal spray. I managed to sleep much better last night (I think they stopped the flyovers too!). I did learn one thing from the experience: packing Kleenex's was a very good idea.

FUNNY PATCH that I saw in the German PX the other day: a circle with a red maple leaf in the center that said "Legalize Canada"

Monday, October 25, 2010

Finding the Funny Side of the Combat Zone

The trick with being in a place that has a lot of dust, ridiculous temperature swings, everyone carrying assault rifles with them, and a 50/50 chance of ice cold water in your shower is that you have to find ways to be optimistic. It helps to be able to check email, catch a tape-delayed football game at the USO tent (especially if you can check the score on the internet and see that your team won the game!), read, or watch movies on the laptop. I understand that they do salsa dance lessons three times a week, so I have to check that out! One major purpose of the band, in fact, is to improve morale of the troops, and we hope to be up and running soon so we can do that. In the meantime, it's interesting how one can have a little fun here.
There are many latrines on the base here. I'm sure that contributes to the particular smell that permeates many sections of the post. Naturally, there is a fair amount of graffiti in the latrines, most of it unprintable in a blog intended for family reading. But I did come across a couple of things that I found surprisingly deep:
Artificial intelligence is neither good nor evil. It cannot love or hate you. But you are made of molecules it can use for something else. Nice to see that geeks are everywhere.

Chuck Norris stepped on an IED and blew up the trigger man.

Yesterday, we had a five-hour long briefing. A British Major General told us that many orders that are put out are written in Dari, a variant of Persian (Farsi) that is the most commonly spoken language in Afghanistan, and then back-translated into English. This leads to some amusingly archaic wording, such as: Coalition forces should avoid vexing the locals.

Given that this is just the first week, I expect to have more where that came from!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Live From Kandahar!

This is my first post from my current duty station: Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan. I left the US about a week ago, and arrived here last Tuesday with the 10th Mountain Division Band Brass Quintet. We are already rehearsing in makeshift venues (a dining hall between meals, a classroom right next to the Canadian sleeping quarters, etc.) for the 2 or 3 performances for which we've already been scheduled. For security purposes, most of my posts about this deployment will cover what has already happened, not what we are planning to do. I intend to post things in something of a diary format, though my internet access is a bit sporadic at the moment so it may be a while before these become regular. As much as possible, I hope I can give you a glimpse into the life of an Army bandsman who is in a "combat environment" and trying to do what we do best: lift the morale of our troops and reach out to others using music. I'll put up some pictures when I can, although it may be a little while before I'm able to get some downloaded.
The situation so far: it's dusty here. Very, very, dusty. I imagine the dust-to-oxygen ratio is something like 1:1. We are living in a large tent (no, not like M*A*S*H; it has a concrete floor, a little climate control, a metal frame, and is very large, and we do have indoor plumbing in the bath house) which is our temporary home while we wait to take over operation from the British and Canadian armed forces. We *hope* that when they move out in a few weeks there will be more room for us to move in to some more permanent housing. Until the rest of our unit arrives, though, it's just the quintet. We're working hard so that our first impression will be very good and possibly lead to more performances. We want to stay busy making music! More to follow next time, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Random Thoughts on Popular Music

*Even though the official name of the band was always listed as "The Four Seasons," people often refer to the four-member group as "Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons." Shouldn't that be "Frankie Vallie and the Other Three Seasons"?

*Incidentally, my favorite song of theirs is probably "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" in which Frankie only sings lead on the bridge.

*Paul McCartney had a number of Beatles songs in which he's the only Beatle on the recording: "Yesterday," "Blackbird," "Mother Nature's Son," and "I Will" being examples. Oddly enough, John Lennon only had one "solo Beatles" song: "Julia." I'm pretty sure George was the only Beatle on some of his Indian-flavored songs like "Love You To" and "The Inner Light," which did not use standard rock band instrumentation.

*I find it ironic that Bob Dylan wrote "The Times They Are A-Changing" early in his career, and then late in his career wrote a weary, somewhat apathetic song called "Things Have Changed." The latter was written for the film Wonder Boys, and won the Oscar for Best Song. One presumes that such an achievement might cure a case of apathy.

*Some of the biggest names in music have written and sung songs for the James Bond films. One can forgive the producers for hiring one-hit wonders like A-Ha ("The Living Daylights") and Lulu ("The Man With the Golden Gun") to sing those theme songs, which haven't aged well.

*Then again, the titles of some James Bond films have led to some pretty outlandish song lyrics. Only someone who can sing anything with deep conviction, like Tom Jones, could pull off "Thunderball" without it sounding completely ridiculous. ("He looks at this world, and wants it all/So he STRIKES!-----Like THUNNN-DER-BAAAAALLLL!!!") Tasked with the theme from Goldeneye, Bono and The Edge (from U2) just wrote a catchy song with no relation at all to the plot of the movie other than the title. On some films, they just threw in the towel and came up with unrelated song titles: Rita Coolidge's "All Time High" for Octopussy, Chris Cornell's "You Know My Name" for Casino Royale, and Jack White/Alicia Keys' "Another Way To Die" for Quantum of Solace. For The Spy Who Loved Me they had Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better," which references the movie title in the lyrics. Dr. No and On Her Majesty's Secret Service had instrumentals for the opening credits. (So did From Russia With Love, which played the title song over the closing credits.)

*Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht may have been somewhat obscure German theater composers who fled Europe after Hitler came to power and banned their music, but they managed to write songs that attracted performers as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bobby Darin ("Mack the Knife") and The Doors and David Bowie ("Alabama Song"). Also, Weill's widow Lotte Lenya is mentioned in some English-language recordings of "Mack," and she portrayed one of the villains in From Russia With Love.

*I've long thought it ironic that Buddy Holly's recording of "Not Fade Away" fades out at the end.

*Since I started taking ballroom dance lessons last year, I have learned that it is legitimate to like a song because it has a good beat and you can dance to it. Then you see the video and realize to your horror that that's what the song is about...! (I call this the Lady Gaga effect.)

*Also, it wasn't until I was a freshman in high school that I understood the meaning of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." ("She's just a girl that claims that I am the one/But the kid is not my sonwoooooah!!!!!)

*Isn't it weird that some songs become big hits, even though they only have one verse? "There She Goes" by Sixpence None the Richer, "The One I Love" by R.E.M., and "Got My Mind Set On You" by George Harrison are notable examples. Not quite the same, but Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" is one of the only big hits I can think of whose form is 1st verse, 2nd verse, chorus, 1st verse, chorus.

*Isn't it interesting that people love an artist's greatest hits album, but hate it when a TV series airs a clip show?

*Conversely, I've long enjoyed songs that are unusually complex for pop music, and have multiple "sections" in them. Examples: "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen, "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys, "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles, "True" by Spandau Ballet, "L.A. Woman" by the Doors, "The Camera Eye" by Rush, "Funeral For a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding)" by Elton John, "Roundabout" by Yes.

*Disturbing trend: in the 70's there was a group of men called Queen, in the 80's there was a group of men called Twisted Sister, and now there's a group of men called Barenaked Ladies. I shudder to think what comes next.

Monday, October 4, 2010

On eBooks

Moving puts things in perspective. As I mentioned in my last post, I'm about to ship off to Afghanistan for a little while. Because of this, I decided that I could save some cash by not renting half a duplex while I'm out of the country. So even though I absolutely hate packing and relocating all my stuff, I have done just that. Fortunately the Army pays for movers to come and pack the house and ship everything to a storage facility somewhere in Syracuse, so much of the expense and manual labor were not mine.
It is a bit unnerving, though, to see nearly all one's possessions packed up and loaded on a truck. I found myself thinking, I have too much stuff. I'm quite certain that if they took half of those boxes (not those! The other half!!!) and chucked them in a trash compactor I'd never miss them. Sure, I'd lose some copies of the college newspaper with that hasty and ill-considered editorial that I wrote, some drawings I did during study hall in high school, and some items in my collection of graduate school recital programs, but those are things I pretty much never look at and am doing just fine without right now. I could save so much time and space by just eliminating the junk. (To say nothing of how I have many things I'd like to keep but could still survive without.) The point is, some of my many excessive items include books.
I enjoy reading; I have since I was old enough to read. I have a lot of books, many of which I've read once, many several times, and some not at all yet. I like the feel of a book in my hands--the weight of it, the texture of the dust cover, the smell of the pages. (Yes, they have a scent.) I like hardcovers, paperbacks, novels, graphic novels, fact, fiction, science fiction, science fact, history, historical get the idea. I'm proud to have the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy (with Alan Lee illustrations), the complete Harry Potter series, and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. I expect I'll probably have a fair amount of down time while I'm overseas, and during that time I expect to read a lot. Unfortunately, books take up a lot of space and can get pretty heavy when you have a lot. So I got an eReader.
This one's a "Kobo," an imprint from Borders. It's cheaper than several others, but has a good-size screen and is compatible with many online libraries. It can hold hundreds of volumes, and even came with 100 titles already stored on its 1 GB drive. (These are classic public domain titles like Sherlock Holmes stories, Jane Austen novels, Homer's Odyssey, etc.) It's designed to be comfortable to hold, and it is. The battery charge is supposed to last for up to two weeks. I'm still in awe that now I can hold the complete Lord of the Rings in this little tablet that weighs just a few ounces, and with just a few clicks be reading Tolstoy's War and Peace. (Not that I plan to start that novel anytime soon.) So for the sake of taking a sizable library with me to a secure military base for several months, I'm glad that technology has reached this point. I expect I'll start on Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series soon, and it's nice that I won't have to lug a bunch of paperbacks with me to do so. Once/if I finish one, I can just connect to the internet and purchase the next one. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find the complete works of Shakespeare for my Kobo. Good thing I have those stored on my iPhone.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Thoughts On Film: Once

So, it's been over two months since my last post. The delay has been a result of travelling to Atlanta and Nashville, preparing to deploy to Afghanistan with my band in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and some general laziness. During my time in Central Asia I plan to use this blog as something of a public "deployment diary," keeping in mind that there are certain things I won't be able to reveal for security reasons. Hopefully my internet access will be reliable enough that I'll be able to post at least once a week. But for now, I'll talk about a movie I finally got around to seeing earlier this week: Once, a very good film about working-class musicians in Dublin.
The story involves a singer-songwriter who plays on the street, fending off lowlifes trying to steal his guitar case and the meager coin collection inside, played by Glen Hanspard. He meets a Czech immigrant (the radiant Marketa Irglova) who strolls up and down the street selling flowers and finds his music irresistable. She discovers that he fixes vacuum cleaners in his father's shop when he isn't performing, and he discovers that she plays piano in a music store when she isn't selling flowers. In return for some work on her broken-down Hoover, he asks to hear her play, and when they try playing together they instantly realize that their musical chemistry is something special. He finds himself torn between his new musical partner and the woman who left him to move to London, and she finds herself pulled between him and her estranged husband, still in the Czech Republic while she takes care of her daughter and mother. They eventually begin recording a demo for him to take to London to boost his career.
The film was shot much like a documentary--many shots of the two are from a distance, which allows the musicians-who-are-not-actors to feel relaxed and this lends a fresh, natural feel to their interactions. The characters aren't even named; in the credits they are simply "Guy" and "Girl" respectively. The music, mostly composed by the two main actors, is excellent and in most scenes is performed live for the camera. The opening credit sequence is a single, unbroken shot of Hanspard playing in the street, wailing his plaintive lyrics, with Irglova appearing in the frame just as he finishes. She gets a solo moment in a darkened studio piano room singing "The Hill," a song so heartbreaking that she is unable to finish it without breaking down. The most "magical" moment of the film is their first duet, "Falling Slowly," a song that won both songwriters/actors an Academy Award for Best Song. (In one of the Oscar telecast's most memorable moments, host Jon Stewart called Irglova back to the stage to give her acceptance speech after the orchestra cut her off.)
The film is somewhat reminiscent of Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation in that both films deal with a largely-platonic relationship between two attached-but-lonely people who mostly just need someone to listen, but I found this film much more emotionally engaging because of the way the songs help advance the story. (Also, this R-rated film could easily be PG were it not for the stereotypical Irish penchant for F-bombs.) If you like music that is raw and powerful and a story that relies on strong, realistic performances rather than flash, Once is a movie you should definitely check out.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I really meant to write about this earlier, but as so often happens "life" gets in the way--work, travel, fatigue, know the drill. But with all the trouble and tempestuous distraction that circumstances throw at us, sometimes the best way to deal with it is to laugh. And few people in the past two decades have made me laugh as much as "Weird Al" Yankovic. He is the most successful parody artist ever, having sold millions of records, won multiple Grammy awards, appeared on celebrity game shows, and been a pop-culture reference in numerous venues, from the Naked Gun movies to "The Simpsons." Grunge rock pioneer group publicly stated that they knew they'd really hit it big when WAY parodied their monumental hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with "Smells Like Nirvana." He is probably (indirectly) one of the biggest-selling polka artists of all time, since most of his albums include a medley of popular tunes done in a hyperactive-yet-clearly-articulated polka style. (His Alapalooza disc eliminates the medley in favor of "Bohemian Polka," a complete polka-styled rendition of Queen's ubiquitous "Bohemian Rhapsody.") I have been a WAY fan nearly from the beginning, having seen his earliest videos ("Ricky," "I Love Rocky Road," and his "breakthrough" hit "Eat It") when they first started playing on MTV during my first grade year. During the roughly two-decade span between his first top-40 entry with "Eat It" and the top-40 appearance of his Chamillionaire knock-off "White and Nerdy" (when I saw the video, it was like looking in a mirror) WAY has matured from a goofy guy with clever rewrites of pop tunes and a few interesting originals thrown in to a bona fide creative artist whose parodies match the production quality of their predecessors and whose original material is complex and sophisticated enough that I don't think the term "genius" would be out of place.

So I was quite excited to hear that Yankovic would be making an appearance just a few miles from my residence near Watertown, NY on July 5, 2010. I'd seen him a few years before in Knoxville, TN on a last-minute invite from some college friends, but we arrived late and I wasn't going to pass up the chance to see a complete show. The "Live Al" experience is quite a production, even in Watertown's little hockey arena which has the acoustical quality of a standard high school bathroom. Al has been touring with the same band his entire career (guitarist Jim West, bass player Steve Jay, drummer Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz, keyboardist Ruben Valtierra, and Al on keyboards and accordian, and some harmonica) and in between numbers, videos are shown that are compilations of Al's MTV and "Weird Al" show productions, tribute videos from other artists, pop culture clips that reference Al, and Al inserting himself into "interviews" with folks such as Celine Dion, Eminem, Robert Plant, and Jessica Simpson with hysterically funny results. (Sample dialogue: Al "So, Celine, I understand that years ago you went on a safari with your family and you were attacked by cannibals. Wanna talk about that?" Celine Dion "I remember the cooking of my mother." Al "That must have been traumatic!" Celine "It was great! I have fond memories of that time!" Al "Let's talk about something else, ok...?") During these breaks in the show Al and the band change costumes and props for the next number. They must put a tremendous amount of effort into planning their shows, because they must perform in a variety of genres, styles, and costumes and yet the whole thing seems smooth, polished, and the band doesn't miss a note. Al's voice sounds better than ever, far better than the nasal nerd-next-door delivery that marked his earliest efforts. He pulls off quite an impressive Jim Morrison impersonation on his Doors-style "Craigslist" yet manages to evoke Don McLean in his Phantom Menace-inspired "American Pie" parody "The Saga Begins." ("My, my, this here Anakin guy, may be Vader someday later now he's just a small fry...")

The concert started off with an as-yet-unreleased polka medley that my sources suggest is named "Polka Face," a conglomeration of recent hits like Lady GaGa's "Poker Face," "I Need You Now" by Lady Antebellum, Jaime Foxx's "Blame It On the Alcohol," Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl," and others. A more obscure Alapalooza track followed, the R.E.M.-ish "Frank's 2000 inch TV," and his recent "internet leak," the actor sob story/theme park ride tribute "Skipper Dan." Other recent tunes included his White Stripes-esque Charles Nelson Reilly homage "CNR" (though the sight of Bermuda dressed like Meg White was a bit disturbing), his parody of T.I.'s "Whatever You Like,""Whatever You Like," and of course "Smells Like Nirvana." A touching rendition of the unplugged "You Don't Love Me Anymore" ended with the smashing of a perfectly good (and unplayed) guitar. A couple of songs seemed tailor-made for the culture of northern New York: "Amish Paradise," which I'm sure was enjoyed by a very Menonite-looking man in the audience, and his hat tip to Green Day, "Canadian Idiot," a humorous swipe at common stereotypes of those polite people who live just 30 miles away across the border. (A nice touch was that this tune concluded with an explosion of red and white confetti.) He wandered out into the audience, prompting a lot of cellphone picture-taking, for his Al-imitating-Beck-imitating-Prince song "Wanna B Ur Luvr," a funky string of increasingly bad pick-up lines. (You're absolutely perfect, don't speak--you might spoil it; your eyes are even bluer than the water in my toilet.) A lengthy medley covered a lot of his well-known tunes, notably his first tune to catch public notice, the Queen parody "Another One Rides the Bus." His final encore, the "Lola"-inspired "Yoda," included the ever-popular "Yoda Chant," an unreleased but mind-bogglingly complex a capella mismash of arcane babbling that seemed to be as natural to the band as...well, everything else.

The big shock was when the audience was informed that we should wait out back by the bus if we wanted to meet Al. I hadn't planned on this, but I figured that I might as well wait it out and see what happened. I ended up in line next to a woman who had actually danced with Al during "Luvr," and what I think were her son and his girlfriend. Since many Al fans are nerd-ish and have common interests, we had a constant and random conversation about all things Al and the various tangents that will come up in such a dialogue. The younger girl was excited to have actually caught a fragment of the busted guitar. (I guess these people got their money's worth for the front-row tickets.) Around 11 pm fireworks came from the nearby baseball diamond. I can only assume that they were leftover from July 4th, but fireworks. At least they helped pass the time, as we waited for around an hour and a half before the line got close to the bus. One picture, one autograph, no questions, we were instructed. I was glad that in addition to a t-shirt (which was printed with tour dates before Watertown was added; it was a "Craigslist" shirt with a picture of "Al Morrison") I had purchased a $3 pack of trading cards, for now I actually had something for him to autograph. In the end, I got the autograph, a picture at the front of the tour bus, and a handshake/"great show; I've been a fan for a long time" before I headed back to the car. Between seeing the Space Shuttle and meeting "Weird Al" I can be glad that I've managed to fulfill two childhood dreams this year. It is gratifying to see one of the most well-known names in the business take time for his fans, especially since he has managed to craft a scandal-free, family-friendly product that keeps folks laughing long after the show is over. Not bad for someone who is so white and nerdy.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


I suppose it seems natural that a blog with the name "Freedom Trombone" should have an entry on July 4. So here it is.

While there will always be the cynical voices who complain about how Independence Day didn't apply to the slaves, or how the actual vote to separate from England was taken on July 2 (the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, though), the truth is that the date itself doesn't matter as much as remembering the purpose of it. For the first time in modern history, a nation was established that was based on a concept rather than racial identity, religious isolationism, or ancestral territory. That concept was that a people should govern themselves, rather than be governed by a distant monarch whose only claim over them was that he was born to a particular family. They recognized that unchecked power inevitably leads to despotism, so they instituted a government that places a check on every facet of power: the Executive cannot write laws, the Legislature cannot enact the laws that it writes, and the Judiciary can only interpret laws that have been written and signed. Even the people themselves are not given absolute authority, for they must choose representatives, and their popular representatives are balanced by the even representation in the Senate.

More than that, when the Constitution was written the writers knew that mistakes would be made in this "grand experiment." They knew that certain events could not be foreseen. They knew that eventually something would have to be done about slavery, which most of the founders realized was antithetical to the concept of freedom upon which the nation was founded. So they wrote a document that allowed for the possibility of change, to give specificity to the broad ideas it contained. How little we appreciate that we can read our federal law in its original form, and know that the changes that have been made have been open and decided by the will of the people, rather than hashed out in secret.

Thursday night, my band (the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division Band) played a concert at Ft. Drum, NY. Our closing piece (not counting the encore of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever") was Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." Yet again, the cynic will complain that this piece was written to commemorate the Russian victory over Napoleon and has nothing to do with the United States. (In fact, the closing section of the overture contains the Russian hymn "God Save the Czar," a sentiment that is certainly at odds with the non-kingly nature of American government.) What the cynic forgets is that we play the music for other reasons: it's exciting! It's popular! And we get to fire cannons! (Believe me, the performance is much more exciting with real artillery. You don't hear the difference so much as feel it.) American audiences love it because it is great music, and they connect with the emotional triumph that the piece represents. (In the same way, our national anthem is "The Star-Spangled Banner" because of its association with Francis Scott Key's poem, not because we remember the Anacreontic society that inspired the tune's composition.)

Sometime within the past week or two, I saw a headline somewhere about how poor Americans are more likely to suffer from obesity. I think this says something about how blessed we are as a nation: we are probably the only place in the world where the poor are too fat rather than too thin.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How did I wind up here? -or- At least I Didn't Get Dumped on National TV

We all have our guilty pleasures, those things we like to indulge in but are not proud of. For some, it may be a type of ice cream, or a series of comic books, or an oft-ridiculed music group like Air Supply. (I'm just using them as an example of course, though thanks to my parents Air Supply is the first concert I ever went to. Don't judge me.) One girl I dated considered "Sex and the City" her guilty pleasure, but I was willing to watch it with her largely because of Kristin Davis. Well, I have many guilty pleasures, most of which I will keep to myself, but just a few weeks ago I stumbled upon another one which I feel I must admit to the blogosphere: ABC's "The Bachelorette."

One reason why I've been watching is because the Bachelorette of the title, Ali, is ridiculously cute. She appeared on the show's alternate incarnation, "The Bachelor," in a previous season and, in a major surprise, was eventually turned down for another girl. The network decided to bring her back, this time with the opportunity for her to choose rather than be chosen. She has been provided with a stable of different men who each try through various one-on-one and group activities to prove that they are the right guy for her. Every week, she must choose who gets to hang around for the next week and who must go home having been rejected in front of a nationwide television audience.

I find it fascinating for several reasons. Throughout human history, there have been numerous ways that people choose a spouse, and frankly, most of them are very weird. There have been marriages arranged by the parents, and sometimes these involve the bride and groom not even meeting until the actual wedding. There have been weddings that were strictly political. There's the famous Li'l Abner story of Sadie Hawkins, who wasn't much of a looker but was very fast on her feet and got to marry the first guy who couldn't outrun her. But only recently have people had the opportunity to go on national television and have their dates planned by a producer, followed by a video crew, and edited for mass consumption. Then again, this affords those involved to benefit from a major television network budget, and they take helicopter trips, participate in "The Lion King" on Broadway, travel to Europe, and help the (all-male) rock band Barenaked Ladies make a music video. We should all be so lucky to experience courtship like that.

I am also fascinated to watch how these guys behave. Just as Ali is one of those girls that you look at and wonder why she's still single, most of the men are better-than-average looking, well-chiseled, and have jobs like lawyer, pro wrestler, weatherman, etc. Most of them dress well, and it seems like standard procedure now for at least two per week to try to pick up a guitar and serenade the beautiful blonde. And yet, the majority of these dudes are really insecure. There are quite a few that, whenever they have their cut-away "interview" to talk directly to the audience, mention how jealous they are becoming, how hard it is to see Ali spending time with the other guys, how much they are certain that if she only knew how much I CARE about Ali she'd definitely pick me. I find myself thinking about how lame it is that these guys with so much potential are just losing all their dignity in front of millions of people, and then I remember that they are hanging out with her in a swanky New York hotel while I'm curled up in the fetal position on my couch watching TV like I do almost every night in this little town 70 miles from the nearest big city.

It does make me wonder how I'd do on a show like that. I'm not sure if I'd rather be the chooser or a potential choosee. (Is that a word? For the purposes of this blog, I will assume yes.)

Would I be one of the cool, laid back, confident guys that manage to have successful interactions? Or would I be one of the increasingly paranoid headcases who constantly resorts to cliched and trite "romantic talk" and gets a tattoo to "prove" how serious he is. (Congratulations, now you get to hope there's a girl somewhere on this continent who doesn't think you're going to become a stalker!!!) I wonder if Ali gets to watch the behind-the-scenes video that we do, and does that affect her decisions?

And part of the reason I watch is for the vicarious thrill--I have no luck with women these days. Even in Atlanta, which has a much larger dating pool than Watertown, I had a knack for developing a good rapport with women who wanted to be "just friends" or were already seeing someone else. The type of women that tend to interest me (some college education, physically fit and active, intelligent, of good character, variety of interests, basic good hygiene) simply don't stay in Watertown. I'm beginning to doubt if they even stay in Syracuse. There's a huge singles crowd in New York City, but that's still several hours away by car or train. It simply isn't easy to meet people anymore. It's far more convenient to watch other people date on television than to try to do it myself. But if you're reading this, and you're a single girl with many nice qualities, let me know what you think of Air Supply.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Chuck Norris would have called the baserunner out. --from my Facebook page

If you're a baseball fan, as I am, then you already know the situation from last night's game between the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians: Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was one out away from throwing the unprecedented third perfect game of the season when first base umpire Jim Joyce called the 27th batter safe even though replays showed he was clearly out. Galarraga retired the final batter to complete a one-hit shutout rather than MLB's 21st perfect game. Several fans and commentators have offered various opinions on the matter:

*Change the call to an error, thus preserving the no-hitter without actually altering anything else that happened.

*Retroactively correct the call and remove the final at-bat from the record books, thus officially preserving the perfect game.

*Do nothing. Mistakes happen and that's what happened here. The outcome will be more memorable because of the controversy, and will be remembered with Harvey Haddix's monumental non-perfect game in 1959.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig seems to have chosen the final option, though he now claims to be exploring instituting a replay option beyond correcting disputed home runs.

Some of the arguments I've heard for preserving the original call, and some of them are truly ludicrous, have something to do with baseball being a "metaphor for life" and "learning to deal with disappointment," and that such things "build character." Baloney. Baseball, like just about any sport, is about the rules. It is not a metaphor, it is not a character-building exercise, it is a game in which certain actions dictate certain outcomes. We may impose loftier ideals onto the game, but the game itself is about recording 27 outs before the other team scores more runs than you do. If you record 27 of those outs consecutively, you have a perfect game, as long as your offense can circle the bases. (Haddix's Pirates didn't, resulting in the most incredible single-game offensive failure of all time.)

Perfect games are among the rarest of feats in sports. They are an alignment of great pitching, great defense, and usually luck mixed with poor hitting. It is disappointing when they are lost on a bad pitch, a dropped ball, a hesitation. It is even worse when they are lost because of an officiating mistake. What MLB is telling us, essentially, is that the actions of the players on the field do not matter as much as a split-second decision from the umpire. A team can do everything right and still be denied their place in the statistical history book because of a non-player's human error.

We all know of those notorious game-changing errors that have been caused by an officiating goof in the past: the very similar mistake that probably cost the St. Louis Cardinals the 1985 World Series, the fifth down play that allowed Colorado to win a football game, Nebraska's "kicked" ball in the end zone that allowed them to keep an undefeated season alive, Testaverde's yard-short touchdown. Mistakes happen, and they will continue. Such is the nature of being human. But is this not an opportunity for us to learn a different lesson? That sometimes those with the power to correct a mistake should correct that mistake? That allowing an injustice to stand because we can't fix every mistake is to admit that no rule is worth upholding? "We can't catch every speeding car, so why bother about enforcing the speed limit at all?"

To their credit, both Galarrage and Joyce have handled the matter with the highest degree of dignity and class. Joyce has apologized profusely, and Galarraga has been gracious and forgiving. They have truly been a credit to the image of MLB. So good in fact, that I think they each deserve a mulligan. Let the umpire's mistake get corrected so he won't spend the rest of his career as "that guy." Let the pitcher take his place in the Hall of Fame's register of perfect games. Let the fans in the park have their attendance at a historic moment recognized by the League that only survives because of their support.

I propose (not that the League cares about my opinions) a simple rule change, retroactive to June 2, 2010. "Any play that has the potential to end the game that is disputed by a manager or a member of the umpiring crew may be reviewed by the home plate umpire or another umpire of his choosing if he himself made the disputed call. Upon review, if the initial call is judged to be incorrect it shall be changed appropriately and no action taken after such change shall be entered into the record of the game, and no such statistics will be applied to any players in the game. This rule will not apply to a dispute of the strike zone."

Well, that's what I would do.