strumzilla

​A blog/journal about my life and the stuff I like. Popular subjects include music, guitars, gear, books, movies, video games, technology, humor.

Filtering by Tag: Career

Busy Busy Busyerington...

It's almost surprising I have found a few minutes to quickly update the blog.  It's been a very busy couple of months since I posted last. Between work, school and trying to practice I've been essentially moving non stop from wake until sleep every day. Ironically, the days I thought I would still get some good practice time (weekend) are often the days I don't find any time to practice. I've been saving my weekly assignments that are project based until the weekend, and these end up eating up big chunks of the day. My best practice days have ended up being Mon-Thu. I haven't been able to maintain my previous 3 hours a day by any stretch. 2.5 hours is a great day because it generally means I got 30 minutes on everything. 

I've had a few weeks where the scope of the work just overwhelmed my practice schedule in general. That combined with a few fix up projects in my studio (mainly installing acoustic treatment) wiped out a few weekends and several weekdays as well. Aeyong has been gone to Korea the last five weeks, so taking care of all the household stuff has really kept me moving at full speed. She comes home tomorrow, and it will be great to have her back. I essentially have 2 weeks left this semester and then the next day we start the spring semester. 

A big development has been the creation of the Music Composition for Film, Television, and Games degree track and I'm orienting towards pursuit of a dual degree with that and production. I will be busier than the proverbial one legged man in an ass kicking contest for the next four years. All that being said, the past two months have been fantastic for my development as a musician. I finally shared my original work with friends and classmates, as well as a brief cover of a Coldplay tune "Amsterdam" that featured me singing and playing all the instruments. 

I couldn't foresee a time when I was going to be ready to do that before, and now I've done it and it was no big deal at all. I've only had a few friends take the time to listen to it, but I've gotten positive feedback from all of them including one who I've respected for years as a musician. It's a small validation, but a really big deal for me. I've known I had something, but I always wondered if it would be enough for others to consider it worthy of the effort. Now I know that it is. Enough laurel resting, I've got work to do. 

Why I love my job(ish)...

Love is probably a bit strong, but there are several things about my job that make me not hate it. To wit:  1.  Regular hours with no nights, weekends, or call (unless I want to work overtime on Saturday to make extra money. Which I don't.)  2.  I'm mostly in control of my day and destiny. In other words, I can work as fast or as slow (usually the former) as I want and I'm not affected by the productivity of others (or the lack thereof). 3.  I have my own office, which is my private sanctuary where I can listen to music, use my iPad, etc. without interference/noise from outside. I sound like I hate people which is not the case, but it's nice to have your own personal space when you have noisy/smelly/etc. co-workers. 4. Kind of related to number one - the work is predictable and manageable. Some days I'm busy all day, but most days there are cushion times built into the schedule so I never feel overwhelmed. 5. Pay, benefits - while federal salaries are normally 10-30% below their civilian equivalents in gross salary, when you consider the benefits (pension, paid leave, health insurance, 401K), then my job is very competitive. Never underestimate the value of a pension. Even if I had been a smart investor and had been saving/investing towards my future since a young age, I most likely would have lost a huge chunk of that in 2008-2009. Because I retired from the Army I will have a very sizable monthly check for the rest of my life, regardless if I work or not. While the federal employee pension isn't as sizable as the military pension, it's essentially the same benefit. Although I do have a 401K that I've been investing in, the federal pension I'll be eligible to receive when I retire will combine with my Army pension and VA disability to essentially ensure that I won't need to work past my mid 60's unless I really want to. Also, the benefit of paid leave is considerable in this job. I worked as a DA civilian and then contractor after I first retired and my annual leave was somewhere around 10 days total. I think I had 10 sick leave days as well. In this job I am authorized 26 days of regular leave and 13 days of sick leave for a combined total of 39 days paid leave per year. And  I've been accruing that amount since I was hired. Most jobs require you to build up tenure to accrue the higher amounts, but not this one. Authorized/paid leave is a huge deal for me. I grew accustomed to 30 days of paid leave per year in my 23 year Army career, and that first year as a civilian with only 10 days of paid leave was a stark contrast to what I was accustomed to. This total doesn't include federal holidays.

2012

Before welcoming in the new year (albeit 2 days late), I wanted to give a nod to 2011. 2011 was a good year. Not necessarily a GREAT year, but essentially good on most days, which earns an overall good rating.

The year started with us in Killeen and no immediate or even medium term plans to move or change anything that substantial in our lives. I had just started working for MEB at Ft Hood and by the end of January I knew I couldn't last long term in that position. The highlights of the year were my subsequent decision to seek new employment, and I began looking primarily in the D/FW area with the intent to relocate. Ultimately this culminated in my finding, applying, and getting hired for a Comp & Pen position with the VA at their new FW outpatient clinic.

We put our house on the market and Aeyoung was very fortuitous in finding a home to rent that was not only convenient to work, but very suitable from a layout standpoint and pet friendly. Besides the upheaval of the move and a couple of months of not collecting a regular paycheck in the summer (and the resulting red on the bank ledger), the year otherwise proceeded as normal.

On the family front, Aeyoung and I celebrated our 21st anniversary in April and just continued to happily share each other's lives with our 3 furry children. Our most recent addition continues to attempt to exert her dominance as the favorite. It's funny how smaller dogs seem to have Napoleon complexes.  I incrementally improved at playing guitar and keyboards, continued to run, and near the end of the year I began studying Korean again, although a little more in earnest this time. Hey, better late than never, you know the old saying. 

Onward to 2012. Aeyoung asked me the other day what my new year's resolutions were going to be. I usually have a significant reassessing of my physical fitness at this time of year, so she's used to me swearing off alcohol and fast food and committing myself to exercise. The good news is that I have been a consistent runner for the past two years and this really hasn't changed. The only ironic event is that I did a number on my right calf in mid december when I was out for one of my pre-marathon long runs. This resulted in my not being able to run for the last two weeks of the year, and now I almost feel as if I am starting a new year's resolution by returning to running. I managed to run 1195 miles last year which is okay.

I had 3 significant down periods due to illness and injury, but this last one has been the longest. I'm hoping I can get my weekly average up to a consistent 30 miles or so, although this means I'll have to run 15 miles on the weekend unless I add an extra weekday. My long term goal is still to run a marathon, but this is the second train up in which I've suffered a significant injury setback that essentially has derailed my plan near the end. I think I will need to reassess my general approach to running/fitness and include some muscular strength and flexibility traning to supplement my running/cardio. I also think about 10-20% weight loss may do alot to minimize the injuries. 

Along those lines I'm going to have to commit to less junk food and alcohol (this is really only a weekend phenomena), and start to really manage how I fuel my body for general health and for running. I think my plan for now will be only social drinking (in our case that means concerts), and limit the junk food to only one or two meals a week. Aeyoung will cook this kind of food more often just from a convenience standpoint, so that means I will probably have to step in a help with some of the food preparation. 

Our financial goals for 2012 are fairly simple. Keep doing what we're doing, but do it better. Get the red off the ledger book that was necessitated by the relocation (and is harder to overcome currently because we're paying rent and a mortgage at the same time). The most important objective for the year would be to sell our house in Killeen, although it's hard to gauge how reasonable a goal that is. We will pay a tax penalty of 8K if we sell before August, so right now we're not being aggressive in our pricing.

That will most likely change if we haven't sold by then. Once we can sell that house, our financial goals will be centered on our eventual home purchase in the D/FW area. That's a 2013 and beyond goal. The eventual home purchase will hopefully be our last. We're hoping to get at least a one acre homesite in a planned development that will protect us from urban sprawl in the long term and allow us to stay in that one home indefinitely. We're looking to settle in the Mansfield/Arlington/Grand Prairie area. This will get us a little closer to the middle of D/FW while keeping my work commute to a manageable timeframe. 

My other 2012 goals center on continued learning and development. I want to continue studying Korean, at least every weekday like I have been striving to do. I'll probably start trying to either read some comic books or watch the occasional television program with Aeyoung. I haven't developed my comprehension and vocabulary enough yet for those to be possible. 

In music, I'm going to commit to two initial goals. Learn at least one complete song by ear per month, and compose at least one complete song per month. To learn a complete song by ear, I'm going to start with something a little more simple and approachable like Led Zeppelin or equivalent. I know bits and pieces of many tunes, but I've been dependent on tablature for the bulk of all songs I've ever learned. I've figured out countless riffs and chunks of tunes, but I haven't forced myself to sit down and learn a complete song from start to finish. It's definitely an easier task now than it was when I first learned guitar. The software tools available make it about as easy as possible. I just need to do the work. I'll build up to harder material once I have several complete songs under my belt. 

On the compositional front, my goal is to have a completed song with all instruments, arrangement, orchestration, production, etc. completed every month. I haven't decided yet if I'll make completely new songs from scratch, although that is the way I'm leaning. I have ordered a small two octave keyboard controller to keep at my main desk to help with the songwriting. As a guitarist I find it easy enough to write riffs while I'm playing my guitar, but I think the keyboard will handle the bulk of the overall compositional duties since I can not only write/play melody and chords, but it's also my only interface for drums, bass and synths. 

 

Assessing Deficits

I find it important to occasionally take stock in my life. I do this by asking myself the question, "What's most important to me? What are the things I value the most and get the most long term satisfaction and fulfillment from?"

I feel very fortunate that the overall most important things in my life are well established, stable, loyal and unlikely to change. Those would be my wife Aeyoung and our dogs, Bridget, April and Arya. They are there every day for me and we'll always be there for each other. Hence, I don't have to really sweat the small stuff when it comes to them. I do make it a point to regularly remind them how important they are to me, but that's not the context of this post.

Once you get to the personal fulfillment level of Maslow's hierarchy, you probably need to attempt a look at yourself with a little wider lens and with consideration to the long term. Often we are so caught up in the little details of life that we lose focus on the future. Missing the forest for the trees to coin a phrase. I feel very lucky that I had two years during my Army career to pursue additional education in my field. While the knowledge was a bonus and has reaped rewards, the most important and longest lasting benefit was the amount of free time I suddenly had on my hands.

My only responsibility was to attend school for two years, so I found myself with considerable more free time that I initially filled up with just my typical recreational activities of golf, movies, reading, computer games and the equivalent. After a few months of this I had mentally reached a point where most of the static noise that tends to build up with day to day frustrations and issues that we all experience had essentially melted away.

I started to think more reflectively and internally and the one great epiphany I experienced was that I had given up one of the great loves of my life when I stopped playing guitar regularly nearly fifteen years before. It wasn't a conscious decision. I just gradually quit playing regularly, mostly because my time was more occupied and because I wasn't really making progress.

Truthfully, I had never really learned the importance and value of dedicated practice and study on an instrument. When I was a kid I think I just dreamed of being a rock star (always a guitarist) and didn't really appreciate how much work it would take to become a good if not great musician. I had friends who were very accomplished in their own rights, were members of bands, but I didn't make the connection of how much time they had dedicated to their instruments & art to reach the level of mastery they had achieved.

I took a few lessons here and there as well as buying some song books and once they became popular, tablature magazines. I learned enough guitar to be able to play three chord punk songs and albeit poorly, some basic scale patterns like the blues. I also learned very basic and sloppy versions of a few fingerstyle parts like Blackbird or the opening to Stairway. In one part of my mind I thought I was doing pretty well, and I would even have people tell me I was good. In retrospect, I think these people were just nice, positive people who wanted to say something uplifting.

I did benefit from developing a modicum of muscle memory for chords and basic scales, but I otherwise never really learned to play the guitar. I knew (and people had repeatedly told me) that I would only get better with practice, but I was either not mature enough or just had too many other areas of concern in my life that my rational mind and will never got together and agreed that work needed to be done. So, I put my guitar down.

I had owned an Ibanez strat style electric, an Ovation acoustic and a Peavey Bandit 65 solid state amp. I also had two pedals (Boss Super Overdrive and Stereo Chorus). When Aeyoung and I moved to Kentucky, we were tight on funds and I ended up pawning the Ibanez and the Amp/pedals for a little extra cash. I don't remember what we got for it, but it wasn't much. For some reason, I held on to the Ovation. I think somewhere inside I knew that letting that guitar go would be completely cutting off ties with the musician I had dreamed of becoming. So the Ovation sat in the closet. It followed us around the globe, occasionally (every few years) getting brought out of its case for a few nostalgic attempts at "Tangerine" or "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You". These attempts would add up to probably less than one hour of playing time over a 15 year period.

The ironic thing, is that I never stopped thinking like a guitar player. I would hear a song playing and immediately focus on the guitar part. I would mentally air guitar solos in my head while listening. While I was always a music fan and listened whenever I got the chance, the amount really increased with the advent of digital music players in the 2001 timeframe. It was probably partially a result of getting my first Ipod in 2003 and the subsequent increase in music listening that influenced my renewed desire to play music.

As 2003 drew to a close, I increasingly thought about guitars and music. I started to get back into buying guitar magazines and listening more to guitar oriented music and with the increase in the number and depth of websites, I was able to do more research and reading into the subject as well. I didn't realize what I was going to do overnight. Gradually as I read more (and had so much more information readily available compared to my teenage years) I started to feel the old spark of joy that I remembered from certain sentinel musical events from my childhood.

I still remember the first time I heard live music. They were the opening act for Donny & Marie at the Ohio State Fair and I was probably around 7 or 8 years old. We weren't there to see the band, my parents had just taken us to the fair that day. They were otherwise forgettable, but it was live amplified guitar, and it froze me in my tracks. I had always loved music from a young age. When I was 3 or 4, I used to insist that my parents play "Bye Bye, American Pie" anytime we got in the car. This was back in the days of analog AM/FM radios. I remember loving that song because it told a long story to music, and I just remember wanting it to go own forever. I would have killed to have my own ipod back then.

I remember the first time I heard a neighborhood kid playing an electric guitar (It was the Reidlingers a couple streets over. There were playing a really crappy version of I think, "Rock & Roll All Nite"). I remember the first time I saw Pat Metheny, and Rush, and standing against the stage while Jimmy Page played the solo to Stairway at the British Invasion show in Dallas. I remember the first time I heard/saw Eric Johnson on his 1989 Austin City Limits appearance. These were touchstones in my life. Music has always had a special power in my life in that it reaches me on a deeper and much more direct level than almost anything else I can describe. Music can communicate on many levels, often on higher intellectual, spiritual, political, and other more esoteric contexts. But Music has always had a unique quality in its ability to reach me emotionally.

I'm not an overtly emotional person. I didn't cry at my Father's funeral. I didn't feel like I was holding anything back, I just didn't feel the urge. I didn't feel any strong emotions about his death at all for several months. But one morning I woke up with a song in my head. It was very simple, just a few chord changes and some vague ideas of lyrics, but I knew it was a song about my father, and about his passing. I spent a few hours trying to work out the chord changes and jotted down some lyrics, but I couldn't continue. I was just finding myself overcome with emotion as I would hear the song and attempt to attach lyrics. I'll get back to it someday. As powerful and cathartic as this experience was, it wasn't a unique experience with music for me.

I've heard someone describe how they don't automatically get emotional when watching movies. It doesn't matter if the movie is supposed to be moving or not, they just don't have that empathetic experience while watching the drama unfold. Until the music starts playing. It doesn't matter how cheesy or nostalgic the show is, when they cue the music at the right time, it's like flipping a switch.

I don't know how else to describe it. For me, music has an immediate and powerful pathway for me. In internet parlance, it has an ultra high speed broadband connection to my emotional side. In my life I don't show or express a great deal of emotion, especially to outsiders. Even within my immediate family unit, I don't regularly show or express sadness and anger. I'm a generally stable, happy and fun loving person. I love to laugh and enjoy the simple pleasures in life, but I don't really experience a great deal of sadness. That's partly because I live a very fortunate life, but it's also because I'm just not inclined to feel sadness. It's generally not a healthy emotion in my opinion. If there's something in your life that makes you sad and you can change it, you have no business being sad. If it's something you can't change, then you should focus on something that doesn't make you sad.

But with music it's a different thing. It's truly like a switch. I can be listening to a song and feel an overwhelming wave of sadness or melancholy wash over me as I listen. And when my Iphone shuffles to the next tune which is usually something that's polar opposite to the last song, my mood can immediately reset itself to the current tune. And it doesn't feel unnatural to go from sad melancholy to high energy, angry heavy metal. It feels perfectly normal.

Music is as fundamental to my life as eating and drinking. I'm fortunate in that I'm able to listen to music all day, even at work. Wow, this is really a rambling, circular way to get to my original point.

To whit, taking stock. Music, while being a persistent and powerful force in my entire life, returned to its rightful center when I decided to resume my life as a musician. It feels weird calling myself a musician because I don't perform for others (unless you count Aeyoung and our four legged children), and I don't earn income or otherwise engage in any activity that would identify me as such that others would know. Nevertheless, getting a new electric guitar, amp, and starting to practice again felt like coming home after being gone a long, long time. My love for music had never changed, I still had that same spark of excitement when learning a new passage, finding a new sound, feeling the calluses starting to return to my fingertips. But I had changed.

Although I still had that young teenager with Rush and Zeppelin posters on his walls and dreams of knocking audiences out with my playing prowess inside me, I was a very different person by then. I had spent 17 years in the Army. I had served overseas on long tours and deployments. I had experienced Combat firsthand, done my job well, and come out relatively unscathed. I understood the value of life. I understood the value of work. I knew that the truly valuable things in life are hard won. I knew that becoming a great musician wasn't about the endpoint. These sorts of endeavors are not about the destination, to coin another old phrase. I had faced many challenges that seemed insurmountable in the past and overcome them. I knew that almost nothing is impossible (I would say nothing, but I don't care how hard I work at it, I'm not going to get a roster spot on the Cowboys) if you want it bad enough.

Oh yes, taking stock. I learned a really valuable lesson about my life in general when I got back into playing music. You have to identify what's really important to you. Take away all the superfluous bullshit that clutters up your life and leave only the things you truly can't live without. I don't mean what you would take in case of fire, we can be a little more generous than that. First and foremost it was always be my wife and dogs. After that, the most important things in my life that I can't and/or don't want to live without are essentially the same as they were when I was about 8 or 9 years old. Music, books, movies, and later video games. There's a lot more to my life and experience than that, but those are the things that truly make me happy.

I don't discount the importance or value of medicine. It's my career and it's been very rewarding to me and my family on multiple levels. But if I'm being completely honest, I could leave medicine today and never look back. I actually like my job. I like the work. It's usually interesting, low stress, and it's good compensation. But I don't have to practice medicine. If I found a similarly lucrative and low stress predictable occupation in an area I was better suited to work, I would probably consider a career change.

Not so with music, movies, books and video games. These are what makes me truly happy and will always be a part of my life. Sad to say, if I'm still alive to see my 80s and beyond, I'll still probably be looking forward to the latest version of a fantasy RPG like Warcraft when it comes out. I'll probably still be listening to my hard rock and metal, and I'll probably still be trying to attend concerts if Aeyoung and I are physically capable and have enough hearing remaining to enjoy the show.

So, what has taking stock go to do with this? I try to make a point of taking stock at least once a year or so. I ask myself where I'm at in my life, and where do I want to go? What are my weak areas and will improving them enrich my life? If so, why aren't I working on them right now?

That's the simplest way I can describe taking stock. Where are you at in your life? Where do you want to be? What do you need to do to get there? Why aren't you walking that way right now?

My current "take stock" list has been pretty stable since I got back into music. I've passed a few milestones like retiring from the Army, moving back to my hometown, getting a good stable federal job. My short/long term goals are fairly simple. We need to sell our house in Killeen and then focus on the next house we will buy which will hopefully be our last. We want to get it right this time so that we're completely content with our decision and can happily stay in that home for the rest of our lives. That's the goal anyways.

After that, my list of priorities is fairly predictable. Continue improving in music: (acoustic/electric guitar, piano, theory, ear, songwriting, production, performing) and possibly add drums and bass to my instruments, learn to read/write/speak Korean (finally after nearly 22 years of marriage), train/complete a marathon and continue running as a way of life.

The satisfying thing for me is that none of my great passions are about reaching an endpoint. As my technical ability in music improves, I'll eventually get to the point where I feel less compelled to work on technique and more on songwriting, improvising, performing. Regardless, I'll never run out of things to learn or practice. And I'll never lose my love for the process. I would have lost it by now if it was going to happen.

Also, I'll never run short of new music to listen to, new movies to watch, new books to read, or new video games to play. Life is truly wonderful. By taking stock I can see where I want my life to go and I'm thrilled to be making the journey. And if I die tomorrow, I know I've lived my life to the fullest that I could with the time given to me.

Tropes...

I'm not talking about the overused TV themes kind of tropes. No, this is merely a salutation using my best commanding officer pronunciation of "Troops".  I think they send field grade officers to a special class on how to speak majestically when addressing your Tropes. Words like Godspeed and Fourscore are also highly encouraged.

Anywho,  it's been awhile.  Life has been tumultous, but overall predictable since last I posted. Back in August I was preparing for retirement and was going to start working as a contractor at a Ft Hood clinic. Since that time I declined that job and ended up taking a federal job for a new off post clinic that the Army was building in Killeen.  Now it's going on mid-November and things are probably going to come full circle. I'm currently in the process of taking a different contracting job on Ft Hood, maily because it's about a 35% pay hike. Without going into detail, I'm thinking about going back to school in a few years and short term earning potential is paramount since I won't be able to work much after starting school.

On the fitness front I have been training to run the Austin 2011 Marathon next February.  This will be my first marathon so I started training several months in advance. I just completed a half marathon last weekend, which was actually a few weeks ahead of my training schedule but it was a memorial run for the November 5th shooting victims and it seemed like a good coincidence and a worthy reason to run.  I ran in 1:44 which I was pretty happy with since my marathon goal is to break 4 hours. I had a short term goal of running 100 miles in 30 days (at the insistence of the Nike+app, actually) and I need to run 8.5 miles today to meet that goal. I have been keeping a pretty steady running schedule, but the occasional Saturday over-indulgence in sudsy beverages has caused me to skip an occasional long run which is usually scheduled for Sunday.

On the musical front not much is different. I had been in an acoustic phase for the last several months but began playing electric a few weeks back.  I'm getting gradually closer to "Endless Road" which has lived up to its name.  I started playing electric again out of natural jonesin and also looking forward to getting my Suhr Modern a la Frankenstrat here in the near future.  On the piano front, I had actually signed up for piano lessons at a little studio here in Harker Heights and took four lessons over the course of a month. The teacher was nice enough but it was very regimented and strictly by this beginner's lesson book.  It would have been good for me to learn sight reading, but I'm more interested in learning songs and don't really see that it's worth the effort to get fast at sight reading.  So, I quit taking lessons and I'm back to just playing my selection of songs. I've added "Linus & Lucy" which is challenging but alot of fun.

Still Breathing

What can I say, it’s been a busy 8 months or so. The site definitely needs maintenance and updates to make it a valid blog. Lots to come if and when I have time. I’m on the cusp of retirement (what comes after the cusp by the way?) and will be busy at work and other assorted events in the near future. I have lots of updates on the home life and a metric crap ton of gear updates. On the gear front, I can only say that I am much closer to gearvana than ever before (if such a thing is possible) For those wanting a hint I can only say: Fractal Audio, Roland, JBL, Presonus, Charvel, Maton, Mesa.

In fact, Germany it isn’t…

After much discussion, Aeyoung and I have decided that parting ways with the Army (at least the active duty portion) is the best decision for us.  I was really on the fence but when I pressed her to state her real preference she was strongly for retirement.  Now that we made the decision I realize it’s the best move.  I have asked my branch to send me to San Antonio where we plan to spend my last year in the Army settling into a new house and looking for my first new job in 23 years.

Germany it is

Shortly after receiving the last sentinel event email, I received another one of those “check the calendar and make sure it’s not April 1st” emails.  My branch followed up the Germany offer with a note that the OH position at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii was also going to be vacant at the end of the year. Aeyoung was even more excited at the prospect of Hawaii so we seriously considered that job for about twenty four hours before deciding on Germany. Hawaii would be great at least for awhile, but the cost of living is prohibitive and we both felt that the novelty would wear off after awhile and we might feel stuck there.  Having been to Europe and always wanting to go back to travel, I was confident that we would both love our time over there.  There are dozens if not hundreds of places in Europe that immediately spring to mind when I think of travel.  Not to mention that I love the European vibe : history, culture, food, architecture, women, wine, song, lions, tigers, ligers, etc.

Belated Ides of March Updates

Well, Folks. It’s mid March here in sunny Afghanistan and we are counting down the days, oh yes we are. Most of the crew here has taken their R&R leave and we are on the downhill slope to deployment’s end. I don’t know exactly how much time I have left but it’s a range of between 45-75 days. I should be heading back to Texas in May so the end is in sight at least. I got one of those sentinel event emails last night from my career manager in which she offered me a job that was often considered just a rumor. Since graduating from the OU School of Public Health I have had my eyes on a position with USACHPPM which is the Army’s Preventive Medicine agency. There are very few active duty slots in the entire organization, and even fewer slots for PA’s. Especially if you didn’t learn the secret handshake (and/or have incriminating evidence against the career manager by which to blackmail). I have been offered the CHPPM PA job in Europe which technically isn’t a real job as they have never created an official position although people have been assigned to those duties for several years. This is as close to my dream assignment as I can get in the Army (until they create an official position that entails testing of vintage guitars, beer tasting, and application of lubricants and other skin products to visiting cheerleader squads). Taking this job will give me a chance to get back into occupational medicine with a focus on research, prevention, health promotion and education. Not to mention that it’s in a very nice part of Germany which will allow Aeyoung and I to travel all over Europe and the Mediterranean for three years.  I’m still anxiously awaiting the new bonus program announcements which are due in the next month or two, but I’m probably going to take this job regardless as it’s worth the investment in extra years from both a personal and professional standpoint. I sign off with thoughts of Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Russia, etc. dancing in my head…

Updates

Not a lot new to report. We’re getting to the end of February, and it’s been a mostly cold and wet month. I’m on the cusp of “double-digit-midgetdom” which is a state of having less than 100 days left in country. This comes from the tradition that started when I was in Korea in which people refer to themselves as short as they get near their departure date, hence midget. Not to disparage the short of stature, mind. We have now entered into a period of watchful waiting as it will be March or April before I find out about how big of a hit the personnel programs will take under President Obama’s budget. This will have a significant bearing on whether I retire in October 2010 when eligible or if I sign up for the new bonuses that are rumored.

October's Gone, and a Presidential Milestone…

I'm a few days late with this, but October has passed us by. It was a tumultuous month to say the least.  Things have been a little quieter the last few days. Summer is still holding on here with daily temps into the 80s although it's colder in the evening.  They finally finished the new dining facility although the quality of the food remains unchanged. November 11th is the four month mark so we're nearing 1/3rd of the tour complete. November will hopefully mark a decrease in enemy activity as the weather continues to get colder.

Back in the US yesterday, we elected our first African American president, Barack Obama.  This is obviously one of the most significant events in American history, easily the most significant political event in the last generation.  He goes into office with a democratic majority in Congress and arguably the hardest presidential task in history. He's going to have to deal with the ongoing war on terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; this will probably pale in comparison to the task of turning the economy around. It's a very optimistic time in our political landscape, hopefully the optimism will be justified.

I'm currently trying to negotiate my next assignment whilst deciding about my long term career options. In October word came out about the new bonus program for the Army PA's and it's very significant if it comes to pass. Final approval is predicted for next spring, and for retirement eligible PA's (yours truly) the amount will be substantial. With the creation of the CSRB bonus program in 2006, I had initially considered signing another contract at the expiration of the first which would lock me in until 27 years active duty. 

However, after nearly a year with a regular unit I was all but dead set against remaining any longer in the Army. Now, after being deployed for four months I have begun to feel different. Most of my dissatisfaction last year had to do with the typical primary care and predeployment mission that dominates stateside military healthcare operations.  The overwhelming majority of patients we treat in the states either don't need medical attention, or are trying to use a medical issue as a means to avoid doing their real job. That will never go away, but after practicing real medicine on a predominately truly sick and injured patient population, I have garnered a new appreciation for my work.

That experience, combined with the changing political landscape and the tentatively planned troop reductions in Iraq have actually got me feeling optimistic about the Army again.  The ongoing struggle here in Afghanistan and the likelihood of continued (albeit decreased) violence in Iraq essentially guarantees that combat deployments will be a regular part of Army life for years to come. However, the optempo may very well decrease to the frequency of one deployment every 3 or 4 years (or even longer) if the positive gains continue. 

My current contract expires in October 2010, when I would be eligible to retire with nearly 23 years active duty.  I can stay in without doing anything since I have to request retirement for it to actually happen.  I'll have essentially one year to think about it after returning from this deployment. The Army typically recommends requesting retirement a year ahead, but no less than 90 days. I'm hopeful that a lot of uncertainty about the next several years (for the military) will be cleared up after President Obama completes his first year in office.  If things continue to improve, I might decide to stick around for another four years.

A Brief Video Tour of Camp Blessing

What follows is a very scrunched and degraded version of a few clips of my current home. I'm limited by bandwidth and the fact I'm using a military network. You will probably need Quicktime to watch this. More professional (read, interesting) clips will be put together in the future, but I don't know if I'll ever be able to upload them while deployed. They'll probably be put together after I return to the states. The best part is, I'm putting them on this website as opposed to forcing everyone to watch them during the holidays. See, I am thoughtful.
http://strumzilla.squarespace.com/storage/Blessing%20Tour%20brief.mov

Is that a tube in your chest…

or are you just happy to see me?  A couple of action shots of a guy who had what was apparently a shrapnel wound to his posterior thorax that resulted in a hemopneumothorax (blood and air in the chest cavity, compressing the lung).  We started an IV, gave him some pain meds & antibiotics, and I placed the chest tube seen here.  We evacuated him to our forward surgical team and he's doing well according to reports.  Yeah, I don't exactly look professional in that first shot, but we tend to joke around a lot during traumas, especially after we have stabilized the patient and know that they're going to do alright. 

I had assisted with a few of these during PA school, but this was the first trauma patient that actually needed a chest tube that I put in myself. During OIF 1 we just never got anyone with penetrating chest trauma that really needed a chest tube.  It's surprising just how hard you actually have to push to penetrate the pleural lining, but it's very obvious once you do. After penetrating and opening the hole up with hemostats there is a great rush of air (in the case of a pneumothorax) and blood (if there's a hemothorax as well) and the patient usually immediately begins to breathe easier, which this one did.  That also explains the last picture (I probably needed a face shield). I'm sure I'll get several more under my belt before I'm done here.

More action photos…

These are 3 pictures from when I tapped a kid's knee last week. The first is me prepping the knee, then it's me and SPC Strain not posing, and finally Dr. Paresh Patel (the battalion surgeon and an ER doc by trade) also not posing. The tap was negative so we ended up just treating him for an overlying cellulitis that resolved after a few days.

The vacant stare and protruding tongue are products of Ketamine, an anesthetic agent that works very well for short procedures. We have to use it fairly often for young children because they get so distressed by the environment and the procedures we perform here.  We use local anesthetics first, but they usually still get very upset by the process so we often sedate them.  These kids get what I call the "Ketamine Stare" where they lay with their eyes open staring, but they are unaware of what's going on. I put on a little Pink Floyd first and with the Ketamine onboard, send them to the Dark Side of the Moon.

A new month

It's now September, so another calendar month is gone by.  August was a fairly good month in retrospect. I left Jalalabad on August 6th and came to FOB Blessing which has turned out to be a positive change in most aspects. I'm pretty happy with the living arrangements, and I have settled into a comfortable routine here.

In the last month I have seen more serious trauma than I saw during my whole OIF deployment. That statement must be qualified by the fact that we didn't have a steady supply of local nationals that we were seeing and Iraq hadn't really heated up yet during my time there.  After four years in Occupational Medicine I was feeling pretty rusty on trauma management, but just a few weeks here can knock a lot of rust off. Yesterday, I placed a chest tube in a local national that was hit by shrapnel and then we evacuated him to Jalalabad for further care.

Things to look forward to in the next month include the completion (hopefully) of the new dining facility which will result in the relocation of the MWR facility to the former mess hall area (which will allow more room) and possibly a small PX being put into the previous MWR facility. September and October are still fairly busy from an operational standpoint, so we will probably continue to get a steady flow of trauma patients.

 

More Pics from Blessing

Some assorted views about the camp. The first is the view out the back porch of the aid station. The area below is a volleyball court and the wall is the perimeter for the main camp area. Outside the wall is the small flight line where helicopters land and they store fuel and other supplies. 

The second picture is the of the little shop and ANA (Afghan National Army) meeting room which is adjacent to our front door. The shop sells mostly copies of movies and music and assorted electronics. I hear he can get about anything you ask for if you give him a couple of days.  So far I haven't broken down and bought any movies (they're 2$), as we have plenty to watch on our computers and in the aid station.

The third picture is of my living area. Narrow to be sure, but it's actually pretty functional.  The nicest thing about it is it's my own private area and it's part of a room I share with our doctor and platoon leader (both of whom are very good neighbors so it's nice and peaceful).  I have my little sitting area and a place I can play guitar, use my computer, etc. at floor level. My bunk is up high and I've got a small light for bedtime reading.  There are plans in the works to get the local carpenter to build a desk in the back (where the 4 drawer chest is located) and build a frame to keep the bunk up high. Our platoon leader already has this setup, so we should get it eventually but we have to wait for other higher priority projects to get completed.

The last picture is of yours truly during one of those deployment highlights, the opening of a package from home.  Aeyoung sent a bunch of candy and school supplies for the local kids, but she didn't forget about me and included a lot of nice toiletries (awesome towels) and some music and game magazines as well as snacks. Everyone looks forward to the resupply flights that come about every four days in the hopes of getting mail from home.



The Zen Masters of Afghanistan…

or ninjas, or firewalkers, or whatever other badass pain insensate icon you can compare to these kids. Here’s a couple more of our stalwart local patients.

The little boy with the interesting headgear and gator (it was raining and we needed to keep the dressing dry) was hit on the top of the head with an axe, according to the story we got. Luckily, it must have been a very lightweight axe as it only penetrated the skin and didn’t reach the bone. He was completely lucid and not showing any neurological defects during the hour he was with us. I threw some stitches in and off he went. He got the gator because he sat there as stoic as a supreme court judge the whole time without complaining or moving. Yeah, these kids are tough. We still get the occasional hysterical screaming kid, but we get more of these kids with zen like patience and bearing.

The little girl behind the old man lost her right eye and suffered shrapnel wounds to her face and leg. I treated and stabilized her initially and then we evacuated her to the forward surgical team where she stayed for a few days. She is on a list to get a replacement eye prosthetic (glass, I think) which will probably be performed in Kabul when it eventually happens. She was another monk like patient; she cried a little bit but otherwise didn’t squirm or fidget during the whole process of cleaning up her wounds and bandaging them. Normally we would have sedated her, but since she had head trauma, we couldn’t give her anything that would cloud her clinical picture.

She’s too young to realize the magnitude of her loss, but the day this picture was taken (about 10 days after the event) she was smiling and playing with her sister and responding to me when I talked to her.



The toughest kids in the world

These children in Afghanistan have a very hard life by any standard, especially by Western standards. Almost daily we are seeing children with significant burns, blunt and penetrating trauma, or infections that have progressed much farther than they would in the US. This little girl is about 3 years old and she was burnt when she apparently knocked over a boiling tea kettle. She was brought in about 12 hours after it happened. We sedated her and cleaned up her burn and dressed it. We arranged for her transfer to a burn center in Kabul and she flew out yesterday. She'll probably do okay in the long run, but it's hard to see these kids going through all the suffering they do when some simple safety measures could prevent these accidents.

My wife is more popular than me…

and she’s not even here. Aeyoung sent a big package that I received yesterday and it had quite an assortment of candy and snacks that she asked me to give to the children that come into our clinic. As the picture below proves, she’s now held in high regard by the locals. The jury is still out on me since I usually am approaching them wearing gloves and carrying syringes and scalpels. It’s amazing how comparable a tootsie pop is to fentanyl.