Nothing Is Better Than Old Friends, Even Tacos. Actually, Let Me Think About That.

There was a song, “Hold an Old Friend’s Hand,” by Tiffany. Remember Tiffany? She thought she was alone now, that the beating of her heart was the only sound, but now she’s actually been alone for like 30 years and it turns out it sucks. And also she has heart palpitations. I read that somewhere, Reader’s Digest probably. Everything I need to know in life I learned from Reader’s Digest. While I was supposed to be in kindergarten but was actually sitting on the john in the boy’s bathroom. What can I say, I was mature beyond my years.

I really have a soft spot for old friends, even if I don’t hold their hands. Which I think is reasonable. I just think that if you went around holding old friends’ hands, people would get the wrong idea. Like if you’re both married to someone else, that makes holding friends’ hands — at best — weird, right? And at worst it can get you stoned to death, if you for some reason did it in Iran.

And even if you’re both single and you’re holding hands because you’re friends, haven’t you kind of crossed out of the friend zone at that point, so that you’re not holding an old friend’s hand anymore, but rather holding a new “friend’s” hand? I don’t think Tiffany really thought this through. Truth be told, I don’t think Tiffany thought through very many things, like the lyrics to “Mr. Mambo,” for instance. She definitely did not think those through. That is a really horrible song, and whenever I hear it I wish I was Hellen Keller so I wouldn’t have to hear it anymore or see other people watching me listening to it and maybe thinking I like it. Because I don’t. I just want to be clear about that.

One of the great things about living in the United States is that I get the chance to see old friends a lot more than when I live overseas. For some reason I can’t get people to come visit me in the foreign countries I live in. This may be because I usually live in foreign countries where you can be legally beheaded, or where the murder rate is higher than anywhere else on the planet, or where the air and water are toxic beyond all reason and may potentially cause mutations, but not the kind like Wolverine has (I personally would be OK with a mutating to look like Hugh Jackman, and also would be OK with a mutation where he and I share a bank account), but more like the kind of mutations that the Baby Ruth guy from The Goonies had.

But now that I’m in the U.S., sometimes I get to see old friends. For instance, Kristina and Andres came to visit me. They said they came for a “work conference,” but it’s understood that they just told their employer that so the company would pay for the trip to come see me. Also, Kristina’s sister supposedly lives in the same city as me, but it’s understood that Kristina’s sister is imaginary. They definitely came solely to see me. And I appreciate that.

I have known Kristina and Andres since before they got married even. In fact, I actually played a key role in them tying the knot. That is a fact. My role was that I told Kristina, Hey, that guy Andres is kind of good looking, like, speaking as a married heterosexual guy, and she was like, I know, I’ve been thinking that for a long time and in fact I think I’ve told you I think that, so really you’re just repeating something you already know I already think as though it was your idea. And I was like, Yeah, but he’s kind of good looking, like, speaking as a married heterosexual guy. Then they got married. No need to thank me, it was really nothing.

Also my friends Mike and Emily and their kids live relatively near me, which is super cool. They moved here because I live here. This is true even though they lived here first. It’s hard to understand how that can be, but just because something doesn’t make rational sense doesn’t mean it’s not real. Think of Milli Vanilli — it doesn’t make rational sense to like Milli Vanilli yet everyone does. Girl you know it’s true.

Mike and Emily allegedly moved here because Mike “got a job” here. But it’s understood that his “job” is living within 40 miles of me so that I can email him once every other month to ask how bad the ticks are. That’s what bros do.

A few weeks ago, me and Kristina and Andres and Mike and Emily and all their kids met up in downtown Washington. It was pretty epic. We picked up some tacos at District Taco, which is a taco chain inspired the Hunger Games, or maybe just hungry people, I really don’t know. But to me it has an Orwellian ring to it. I am not sure what Orwellian means, to really level with you.

Then we ate our tacos in Lafayette Square, which is right across the street from the White House. I think the President was in New York at the United Nations at the time, or else we would’ve shared our tacos in a non-partisan gesture, a pure-hearted act of altruism. Was it Kierkegaard or the Taco Bell chihuahua who said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing. Tacos."?

Once we finished our tacos, we went and protested a little bit outside the White House. I mean, some unemployed people did, I’m not allowed because of the Hatch Act. It’s a law that says that executive branch employees can’t take part in certain political activities, or play X-Box during work hours, or wear colorful clothing, or like Vince Clarke-era Depeche Mode. So I just watched and enjoyed my time with old friends, holding no one’s hand, because that’s gross.

Summer/Autumnal Highlights, with Photos!! (or, "Sorry, I Forgot About July through October")

I have let the past several months get away from me, and I’m not sorry. They were dumb months anyway. I’m better off without them. They just kept me down so I couldn’t realize my full potential, which is getting Christmas presents, preferably the full DVD set of The Wonder Years. I have not had a crush on Winnie Cooper since at least 2016. That is a fact.

Don’t stop believin’. (Fillmore, Utah; Jul 2018)

All that said, I need to summarize the past few months here on the blog so my mom knows what’s been going on. Other people read my blog too — LOTS of people, like my wife once per quarter, to make sure I’m not libeling her — but mostly it’s for my mom. It’s true I could give my mom the skinny over the phone and spare the internet another asinine blog post, but she never knows where her phone is and sometimes struggles to turn it on.

Had to get up at 4:00 am, but got the purple sunrise!! Who’s the world’s best dad NOW? Not Abu Halen? OK, well, that’s cool. (Kolob Canyon, Utah; Jul 2018)

July: We leave India on a 12 hour flight upon which all of the in-flight entertainment is broken. Shannon ditches me with the kids and claims a seat by herself several rows away. She ends up sitting next to a blind lady and has to take her to the bathroom every hour on the hour. I privately feel very satisfied about this.

Told her I was “just testing the autofocus.” Falls for it every time. (Catoosa, Oklahoma; Aug 2018)

Me and Shannon hunt for rental houses in Northern Virginia. We don’t argue very much about which place to rent, but we can’t agree on where we should eat for lunch. Shannon says I should eat more fruits and vegetables, but I don’t want to because they taste like fruits and vegetables. I want hamburgers hand over fist, because I just lived in India where Burger King sells Whoppers with chicken in them, which is offensive to most deities, except maybe Baal, who doesn’t care about that much, really. We eventually split the difference and just have Ben & Jerry’s for lunch, which pleases Zeus. Then we fly to Las Vegas to see my parents and not gamble, even a little, because I’m no dummy. I’ve listed to Kenny Rogers. I know gambling kills you.

Donald’s Populist Punch. Makes you believe you can act however you want with no consequences. I kind of liked it. (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Aug 2018)

August: I buy a motorcycle in Utah and try to ride it to Washington DC, for reasons that don’t make any sense to anyone, including me. The motorcycle only breaks down once in 5,000 miles, and my tent holds up well for two weeks, but my waterproof backpack falls off the bike in Indiana and rips open on the highway. During a thunderstorm. I call Shannon to complain that the universe hates me, and she tells me that this misfortune has befallen me because I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. That is probably true. I am both fat and unpopular with the cosmos. Give me a second here, I’m suddenly depressed.

Here’s our new rental place. Special thanks to Russ and Ellen for moving out for a year so our family of hobos could move in. (Reston, Virginia; Sep 2018)

September: Our children are surprised that the kids in their mega-sized American public school don’t talk to you or express even the vaguest interest in whether or not you are alive. We reveal to them a life hack for forming relationships with American teenagers: when you want to talk to them, just seize their phone, chuck it on the ground, stomp on it a bunch, spit on the mangled remnants, and then look them in the eye and say, “Hey, what’s up man.”

First day of school. We are not sure what this special hand thing is, but so far it hasn’t got them beat up, so. (Reston, Virginia; Aug 2018)

The Foreign Service assigns me to a job in Nicaragua, starting semi-immediately. Two weeks later, after I’ve convinced my family that Nicaragua is not a volatile nation possibly about to plunge into anarchy and chaos, despite the fact that Nicaragua is a volatile nation possibly about to plunge into anarchy and chaos, the Foreign Service tells me just kidding, we made an administrative error, you’re not going. I demand from HR a neck brace to assuage the emotional whiplash to which the past year has subjected me. HR tells me no, on the grounds that I’m fat and unpopular with the cosmos. That’s reasonable, I think.

October: Trick-or-treating is a raging success this year. Grace brings home nine pounds of candy. Her trick-or-treating prowess is directly linked to my superior parenting, or at least that’s what Dr. Phil told me in a dream.

Halloween trunk-or-treat! We are going with the Nebraska/India/Egyptian theme that was all the rage this year. (Reston, Virginia; Oct 2018)

The Foreign Service assigns us to a job in Abu Dhabi starting next summer. I suspiciously accept, wary of having the rug pulled from beneath me again, but conscious of the fact that I have little to no leverage with the Foreign Service, HR, my wife, or most deities, with the exception of Baal, who I find quite pliable.

This is what a small portion of nine pounds of candy looks like. (Reston, VA; Oct 2018)

The daughter of the blind lady from the airplane calls from New Jersey. She tells me how wonderful and amazing and nice my wife is for helping out her mother on that long flight from Delhi to Newark. I listen and smile. Shannon is pretty great, no doubt about it.

Moto X-Country, Part 2 -- Blessed, Man, Blessed (or "Stop Crapping Your Pants")

Belle Fourche, South Dakota – If you haven’t been to Patty’s Place, then you’re probably safer from death by a firearm than I am. This diner in a tiny strip mall on Highway 85 is watched over by a sign at the counter that says, “Guns are welcome on premises. Please keep all weapons holstered unless need arises. In such cases, judicious marksmanship is appreciated.” I think it’s kind of a joke, but one where you laugh but then you can shoot someone and it’s okay, as long as you exhibited good marksmanship, but if you didn’t, then, oops, sorry. I think of Greedo and realize I’m pretty much in Mos Eisley.

I carefully and inconspicuously place the book I was just reading – “Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age” – into my backpack, just in case one of my fellow patrons assumes that my choice of reading material unmistakably indicates that I have bombs in my underwear. I do not, by the way. I haven’t had bombs in my underwear since I was like four, but even then the only harm they caused was that Mom would yell at me to stop crapping my pants. Which I have, by the way.

Don’t worry, baby. Everything’s gonna be alright. (Devil’s Tower, Wyoming; Aug 2018)

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming – It’s early morning and I’m standing in the middle of a campground next to a guy named Mark, and Mark is praying for me and my motorcycle. He’s part of a Christian motorcycle association, and he’s real chummy with God. He calls Him “man” a lot, as in, “We just pray that Abu Halen will be… I don’t know, man… just help him not get in any accidents, man.” I’m standing there with Mark in the cool, groggy air with my arms folded and my eyes cracked a little bit to see if my bike suddenly looks, I don’t know, man, blessed. It totally does. I feel like God likes Mark. Mark is super likeable. Probably Satan likes Mark, too. That’s how likeable Mark is. The world is insane, it punches itself in the face every day, but right here the sky goes on forever in blue and Mark is back-slapping with God. Maybe it’s all not so bad.

Intro to X-Country Motorcycle Ride: In Loving Memory of Fruit Loops & Ghetto Water Parks

Cody, Wyoming — I’m riding a small and uncomfortable motorcycle across the United States on a jagged route that doesn’t make any sense, and that’s why I’m in Cody, eating Fruit Loops. I guess I just want to see places I’m usually too busy to notice, places there’s no real reason for me to ever go to. And doing it on a motorcycle takes down all the barriers between you and the world that you don’t even realize that a car throws up.

Some of the crew, thinking of Fruit Loops. (Blackfoot, Idaho; Jul 2018)

Me and Ronnie are sharing a bench in the morning. I am slurping my Fruit Loops from a paper bowl and he’s aggressively chewing a bagel. He’s telling me how he impulse bought 400 trees from some liberal in Colorado. Ronnie lives in Cheyenne. “How did you get them home?” I ask, thinking less about what I’m saying and more about why I don’t eat Fruit Loops more often. They are really good. Ronnie says he just had to figure it out. He’s a get-it-done kind of guy. He would like my dad, whose motto is “Git ‘Er Done." One thing Dad gets done a lot is cleaning bathrooms. And also watching NASCAR racing, he gets that done too.

Ronnie used to fly all over this big ol’ country when he was younger, an engineer, he tells me. Now though, he and his wife drive. They drive to see all the places that Ronnie used to fly way above, too busy to notice. He stops talking for a second to swallow a glob of masticated bagel, and the sun is low and early, stretching sharp dewy sun rays out across these high Wyoming plains. I say, “Weeeeelp,” and stand up, which is what you say in rural America when you’re ready to stop talking to someone but you don’t want to say, “I no longer wish to talk to you.” Ronnie stands too and grins and pumps my hand when I extend it. He likes me. And I like Ronnie. I look west and I see our shadows gripping one another’s hand, long and dark, so much taller than we really are.

Honeyville, Utah — There is a place a few miles north of Honeyville on State Highway 38 called Crystal Springs. Crystal Springs is a water park. It is what a water park would be like if you decided to build an awesome water park, but then the only money you had was what you could find in the couch cushions. Which, I assure you, is not very much. But sometimes enough to purchase two Slurpees from 7-11 as my friend Bing showed me when I was little. He also showed me that a good way to save money on Christmas gifts for your little sister is to steal one of her toys in October, then wrap it up and put it under the tree, and she’s just happy to have it back so she’s not mad at you for being an awful spendthrift.

My kids are pretty spoiled when it comes to water parks, not like Abu Halen, who had to walk eight miles, uphill both ways, through the snow, to get to water parks back in his day. (Dubai, UAE; Apr 2014)

We had a big family reunion at Crystal Springs when I was eight or nine. I thought it was pretty cool back then, because the only water park I had ever been to was my bathtub. And I guess once our downstairs toilet overflowed, and that was fun too, to run and slide on, but it smelled funny. But Crystal Springs was way better than that, and less poopy too. I just remember summer heat and the way your hair got sort of sticky and weedy feeling from the chlorine and sunblock. It was a glorious day a long time ago.

The truth is, I couldn’t have really told you where Crystal Springs actually is. When you’re a kid, your mental map consists of home, Mrs. Ortega’s classroom, the bike jump at the end of the street, and Taco Bell.

But there I was, riding my motorcycle in the slanted late afternoon sunlight on State Highway 38 a few days before I met Ronnie and rediscovered Fruit Loops, when I caught a whiff of chlorine and sunblock, and suddenly the mountainside and the shape of the green, leafy trees seemed overwhelmingly familiar, and I was trying to place it all in my memory bank when I rounded a corner and stumbled upon Crystal Springs, and then I remembered everything. I slowed down and breathed in those sudden memories from a long time ago, heard the kids splashing and shouting, thought about all the places I’ve been between then and now, wondered if any of them have been as good as Crystal Springs in July in 1988. Probably not.

Eighteen Hours in Milford (But Not on Purpose. It Was An Accident. Not My Fault!)

I stayed the night in Milford, but it was an accident. I didn't do it on purpose. When you take a good, hard look at Milford you might wonder whether anyone would stay there and mean to do it. But there are good reasons to stay the night in Milford, like if your motorcycle breaks down there and you'd rather not walk 75 miles to next town, or 54 miles back to the previous town. Also you might stay there if you were there and you caught leprosy and your legs fell off, and you didn't know anyone with a car or a forklift or a skateboard you could you sit on to roll yourself away.

Oh, the places you'll go (assuming you don't break down or crash)!

But let me take a step back here. I'm giving Milford a hard time, but I personally met and befriended approximately 1% of the town's population, and to a person they were awesome. While I was fiddling with my bike's engine by the side of the highway, Shane and his mom pulled over to help. It turned out that Shane's mom was his girlfriend (?), but that doesn't change the fact that Shane's glasses were a quarter mile thick and he knew a ton about engines. Also, his mom/girlfriend gave me some cold water. That's just a nice thing to do, regardless of your feelings on incest. 

While Shane and his mom/girlfriend were helping me out, Mutt pulled up on a four wheeler. "Probably the battery," he said, and then he spit an impossibly huge glob of snuff on the pavement. "Wow," I couldn't help but say. Mutt smiled. Mutt is in eighth grade, even though he looks 28. He said his uncle is 7 feet tall and got a basketball scholarship, but he turned it down because he wanted to be a welder. Man, being a welder must be awesome

Behold, Milford!

Neither Shane nor Mutt could figure out what was wrong, so they left. Then Sheriff Dave pulled up in his patrol car. He said he's Mutt's cousin, and Mutt had told him there was a long-haired progressive man blighting the outskirts of town, so Sheriff Dave came to check things out. Sheriff Dave was really nice. He offered me a Tootsie Pop, which I normally don't accept from strangers. It was starting to feel like there are no strangers in Milford though, so I licked it. Sheriff Dave said my best bet was probably to stay the night and take my bike into Mike's shop in the morning. He said Mike is his sister's neighbor's boyfriend, or something, and that Mike can fix almost anything, including cats in heat. I didn't laugh, because I thought he was serious. But I don't think he was. When he got done laughing, we sort of stared at each other for a second, and the hot wind blew some weeds across the highway. 

After Sheriff Dave left, I pushed my bike to Family Dollar, because I was still thirsty and because Sheriff Dave said Natalie might let me park my bike there overnight. Natalie seemed alarmed that I knew her name, and it didn't assuage her when I told her Sheriff Dave had told me all about her. Maybe her and Sheriff Dave don't get along, or maybe they are star-crossed lovers, or maybe he tried to fix her cat and she's still sour about that. In any case, I bought a Dr. Pepper and asked Natalie where the nearest motel is. She said it's the Hudson Inn, and when I asked if it's nice, she said it has some beds. I feel like Natalie didn't like me much, but I guess in life some people are your friends and some people wish you would get run over by an F350 and then eaten by medium-sized magpies. That's just the way it is.

I pushed my bike to the Hudson Inn, but the office was locked, with a soiled 8 by 11 sheet of paper stuck to the door that said there was no vacancy. A feral cat wandered out of a partially open sliding door and rubbed against my ankles, and I am pretty sure I caught mad cow disease from that encounter. Also, all the cars parked there sported dreamcatchers hanging from the rearview and at least one mismatched hub cap, so maybe there was a meth convention in town and that's why the motel was full.

Clearly, this motel is full.

The other motel in town is a Travelodge. It's about a mile and a half outside of town, up a hill. I am not strong enough to push my motorcycle up the hill, so I left it next to the meth motel because how could that turn out bad. There is nothing at all in the vicinity of the Travelodge, except Penny's Diner. Mallory brought me vegetable soup and checked me into the motel at the same time, which was the highlight of my 2018. I also got a sundae, because I ate all my dinner first so it was okay. Actually, I got two sundaes because I am a grown up so I can do whatever I want.

While eating sundaes at Penny's Diner, I also took this picture of the diner roof. In the biz, we call this "multitasking."

The next morning I ate sundaes and bacon for breakfast (Mallory wasn't there to judge me, so there was no shame), then I walked back to town and found that my motorcycle had not been dissolved into metal alloys and sniffed through a straw by the local middle schoolers, and I was happy about that. I called Mike's, and the receptionist said, "Hi, this is Monday, can I help you," then she swore and said her name is actually Angie but that she didn't get enough sleep last night. I said that's cool Angie, sometimes I lie about my name too (which is not true, except when I need to evade law enforcement authorities). She said they were booked until Wednesday, but then I cried and she said fine, you're a sad little man, bring your bike in.

I left my motorcycle overnight at the bottom of this hill, because, like a gambler, I know when to hold 'em and fold 'em and park 'em when I'm too weeny to push 'em up a hill.

Mike was on vacation in Idaho, but Matt was there. Matt works for the county fixing the roads but he had a paid holiday that day, so he thought he'd make double dough. Within a few minutes, he'd diagnosed my problem as a bad battery. Mutt was right. I thought of Mutt spitting an enormous clump of snuff on the ground, and I smiled and then threw up in my mouth. While Matt went down the street to get a new battery, I leaned against the workbench and read a book called "Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age: Religious Authority and Internal Criticism." Then a guy named Chuck with a long beard, a camouflage hat, and a t-shirt with a drawing of an AK-47 on it that said, "Come and take it from me" walked in. I discreetly put my book away, because I want to live.

After Matt fixed my bike, I was filling up with gas and Mutt rode up on his four wheeler. "Was it the battery?" he said, gurgling his snuff a little. "Yes," I said. He smiled and a drip of snuff leaked out the corner of his grin. "I am kind of going to miss this place," I thought as I rode off into the desert. 

The End. And don't trespass.

Travel Review: 240 Hours in Mom's Age 55+ Retirement Community

We are tired of cliched travel to places with old churches or vibrant cultures or pristine beaches. So this summer we are vacationing at my mom's 55+ retirement community in southern Utah. It is off the beaten path and none of the hipsters are doing it yet. I am definitely on the cutting edge of fresh, new travel destinations. Here is my review.

The pool reaches 2-3 feet deep in places, so be sure you're a strong swimmer.

Food Options: 6/10. My mom's pizza pockets are only average. I think it's because she started buying them at WalMart instead of Safeway like she used to. Plus, she makes me microwave them myself now that she's pushing 70 years old. I guess she's afraid the radiation from the microwave might melt her cornea implants. All that said, she still cuts up little squares of cheese for me and puts them in a small Ziplock baggie for me in the fridge, so that's pretty solid. Mom has really stepped up her breakfast cereal game from when I was a teenager and we couldn't afford Count Chocula. Now there is Chips Ahoy! cereal, Fruity Pebbles, and Honey Bunches of Oaks for my dad, who needs the fiber I guess. Unfortunately, unlike my teenage years, I now have to compete with my four kids for the sugary breakfast cereal, which in practice means that I end up eating the dust at the bottom of the Frosted Mini Wheats bag. 

The recreation can be intense, so you'll want to make sure you're in good shape before you visit.

Outdoor recreation: 5/10. Because Mom and Dad live in southern Utah and it's summer right now, all outdoor recreation must be completed before 7:00 am, or else your spine will melt. That's a real downer, pun intended. There's a golf course in the community, and it looks nice, but it's pretty ritzy. And by "ritzy," I mean you have to not be able to walk very well to golf there. I am fairly good at walking, although Shannon says I walk with a distinctive swagger, but when I asked her to imitate my walk it looked like a limp or tourette's. So maybe I would be able to golf there after all. So I'd probably give this community a 2/10 on Outdoor Recreation, but when I went running around the neighborhood the other day, I passed like four old people, and they were riding bikes. That made me feel irrationally good about myself, which bumps my rating up three points.

Sometimes things get crazy down at the retirement community, so you may want to escape to the surrounding hills for some peace and quiet.

Swimming facilities: 3/10. The facilities themselves look amazing, but you can't use them unless you are retired. I tried to make the case at the front desk that I am independently wealthy and retired despite my obvious youth, but they looked at my cheap flip flops and faded rock and roll t-shirt that I clearly picked up at Goodwill and not at the actual concert, which I couldn't afford to attend, and they refused to admit me on the grounds that I'm a fat liar. Therefore, I was going to give the swimming facilities 0/10, but my mom has a puddle in her backyard that she calls a "pool," and sometimes rats fall in and drown, and that's worth three points.

Some of the houses come with these sweet action driveway lights that are probably perfect for Halloween and not really that useful for the other 364 nights per year.

Aesthetics: 8/10. The houses in this community look pretty nice. The driveways have this weird coating that makes them look wet all the time, and it makes me have to go to the bathroom constantly. I just think that's very impressive.

Pet life: 11/10. Everyone in this community has a dog, and the dogs have it SO good. A lot of residents "walk their dog" by putting it beside them in a golf cart and driving around. There is nothing awesomer than exercising by riding on a golf cart, plus you're hardly even putting down a carbon footprint. Everyone wins, the old person, the dog, the earth, and Denny's, because you get hungry driving around and you need something off the Grand Slam Menu. Also, I saw a lady walking her cat on a leash, which puts us up and over 10/10.

Overall rating: 7/10. It's been a solid vacation. After about 8:30 pm, everybody either falls asleep or dies, so it's super quiet. I really like that. Traffic is light, the sun is bright, and I'm really excited to turn 55 so I can move in full-time and sit on my porch swing for 30 years and bicker with my wife.

The End.

Gosh, It's So Blue! (And Other Features the Sky and Cookie Monster Share)

There must be good reasons why some flights leave in the middle of the night. I don't know what they are, though. They probably have to do with capitalism and the broad benefit of humanity.

Just a reminder.

It's past midnight and I've been up all day, the World Cup is on a big screen in this terminal with not enough chairs. Brazil can't score, injury time ends, the Belgians tackle one another on the TV. I wonder where I can get a good waffle. A man with a British accent stands in his ill-fitting suit and discusses money with a disembodied tinny voice leaking from his earbuds. Outside the airport the world is asleep, inside we listen to awful Indian elevator music beneath sterile lights and stay awake. 

They tell us the flight is thirteen and a half hours long, but that's just a ruse. Because really the flight is endless. The in-flight entertainment is down, so there's no way to pass the time, so time simply doesn't pass. You hear the big jet beneath you slicing through the stratosphere, it sounds like one impossibly long mechanical sigh. You stare at a book without reading it, your eyes ache. Time gets frazzled this high up in the sky, you wonder if it's still Friday. The guy behind you kicks the back of your seat, your neck pillow gives you neck cramps, the cabin smells like recycled air, which should smell clean but instead coats your skin with clingy, aseptic little atoms. The cabin is the perfect shade of dark to prevent you from sleeping. Somebody's baby cries and you struggle with the tiny airline-provided blanket, trying to get warm.

We land in America on a Saturday. It's all sky blue, exploding green, straight lines and definition. It tastes like oxygen. I find myself breathing hungrily, ripping the air from the sky and shoving it down into my lungs. And I can't stop staring at the smooth sapphire sheet stretched overhead and saying asinine things like, "Gosh, it's so blue," and, "Gee, I mean, blue, right?"

The Uber picks us up, carries us a ways, then drops us off and charges us ten times more than a ride all the way across Delhi would've cost. I give the guy a 6-star rating, with a comment that says something like, "Wow! Super duper clean car!" Then, later, we take another Uber, and that one is really clean too, then we take another clean Uber, and another, and then I realize that Ubers in America are just all really clean. I guess I had forgotten that.

They're Coming to America... Today! (Tomorrow, Actually)

It is packout time! "Packout" is really just a fancy Foreign Service word for "the movers are coming." In the Foreign Service, you're not allowed to use normal words for normal things. You have to use words that make it sound like you are a 1990 pre-Windows DOS computer, where to play a fun computer game you had to type in fungames/iwanttoplaythem/ipconfigkingsquest/ and then push U to jump and C to duck and D to decapitate the lizard boss (this was before they had invented keyboard arrows, or cardinal directions, for that matter).

There they go. There they go again. (Delhi, India; July 2018)

So in the Foreign Service, we don't "move." We PCS. We don't "go on a work trip." We TDY. We don't take "vacation." We take A/L. We don't have "kids." We have EFMs. We don't drive a "car." We drive a POV. We don't have "phones that work." We have "BlackBerrys."

This is the 15th move of our 16 years of marriage, the seventh international move. I remember our first real move (number seven overall), when we had the option of having movers do all the work. 

"No way," I said. "They might break my stuff," which was a funny thing to say because I didn't actually have any stuff, except for a Lite Brite. So I rented a U-Haul and a trailer, and my dad helped me pack the Lite Brite, and I drove our Buick onto the trailer, and then I drove solo for a week from Portland to Washington DC. I guess it was kind of a novice decision, but I don't regret it.

There was the rave party downstairs at the Super 8 motel in Rawlins, Wyoming, which was fun to listen to all night while I tried to sleep (and through which I confirmed that they have house music in Wyoming, which question had baffled scientists for years prior). And there was Richmond, Indiana, an awkward little town that has the misfortune of straddling the Central/Eastern time zone boundary. So it's one of the few places where you can have this phone conversation:

Cal: Greetings Earl.
Earl: Hello, Cal. It is pleasant to speak with you.
Cal: Thank you. You likewise sound well. Are you amenable to bowling this evening?
Earl: Yes. That would be lovely. However, my wife Agatha is experiencing bingo night at the grange, and she took the Oldsmobile for transportation. This unfortunately means that I require a "lift," as they say.
Cal: I am able to provide that. I see that the time is now 7:30 pm. Is it agreeable if I retrieve you at 6:45 pm?
Earl: I am afraid that is impossible, as one cannot travel backwards in time, given physicists' inability to as of yet manipulate the space/time continuum.
Cal: I live seven blocks to the east of your residence, and am thus governed by Eastern Daylight Time. By relocating from my house to yours, I will enter Central Daylight Time, and thus, quite literally, I will time travel. 
Earl: The dull pop you were likely able to aurally decipher moments ago was my frontal lobe exploding.

Now I am a little older, a little wiser, a little lazier. Our belongings have been boxed up while Shannon and I monitored the scene, kept the kids more or less pacified with promises of a better tomorrow, and tried to ensure that our shoes were not inadvertently packed away and shipped across the sea. We all have our shoes, so we must've nailed it.

Abu Halen Bested by India, Cries Uncle (and Other Catchy Headline Ideas)

I think it was when I stepped out my front door to go to work one morning and I felt something viscous yet substantial strike the crown of my head, and I reached up to investigate and came away with with runny bird feces on my fingers, I think that was when I realized that I'm no match for India. Birds poop on people's heads in lots of places, probably even in wonderful places like Omaha, I bet. But it feels different in India somehow, like the bird was trying to crap on the head of the guy who had just showered and had damp hair, so that the avian diarrhea would more easily drip through the hair and onto the scalp. As I put my head down, slumped my shoulders, turned slowly on my heel, and trudged back inside to take another shower, which would make me late for work, that was probably when I started crying uncle.

How Abu Halen feels after one year in India. (Weligama Bay, Sri Lanka; Jan 2018)

I guess sometimes things don't go the way you want or expect them to. About a year and a half ago, I wrote about our excitement at moving to India, at experiencing, as I think I so artfully put it, "the color and the motion and the smells and the air and the dysentery."

Well, I actually had dysentery, or at least something a lot like it, and it turns out it's not exciting, or even interesting. All it is is being drug delirious into an Uber by your wife for a half-conscious trip to the clinic to be hooked up to an IV for hours to combat the incredible dehydration.

As for the smells, they seem exotic until you live thirty feet from an open sewer. Then they're just, well, smelly.

I don't really remember what I was thinking when I declared that I was excited to experience the air, but it was wrong and stupid. The physical and psychological toll of Delhi's air put me on more medications than I could shake my fist at, if I could in fact have actually shaken my first through the prescription drug-addled haze and lethargy.

I guess you could call it all a little bit of a breakdown. But as I believe the poet once said, "Hey, you know, breakdowns come and breakdowns go. What are you going to do about it? That's what I would like to know."

When India throws Holi confetti at Violet, she throws it right back. (Delhi, India; Mar 2018)

Well, sometimes you've just got to know when you're beaten, and India has bested Abu Halen. We've shortened our three-year assignment down to one -- a "curtailment" in Foreign Service lingo -- and will be headed back to Washington DC in a few weeks to work domestically for a year or two.

I guess in a way it's embarrassing to stumble so spectacularly, even though I know intellectually there's nothing to be ashamed about. Sometimes you just feel things that don't make sense though. Just before leaving El Salvador I wrote about the danger of knowing too much and being too comfortable, of the virtue inherent in that sensation you get when you step blindfolded into the unknown. That kind of sentiment feels a little blase now that this particular step for me into the unknown of India has amounted a stride right off a cliff.

I think I thought I was stronger than I am, and realizing that is probably a gut-punch of a blessing. We've airplaned around the world, landing in some pretty dicey places -- Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, El Salvador -- and coming out no worse for the wear. I confess to looking askance from time to time at those who struggled with life in those sometimes-inhospitable places. It just seemed pretty simple to me -- just practice the art of the shrug, do the Steve Winwood and roll with it, you know?

But now India has had its way with me. And I'm crawling home hoping that those for whom India is colorful and wonderful and easy will look on me with a little more charity than I've shown in the past to those I've heard cry uncle. I knew what it sounds like, but now I know what it feels like. I hope somehow that will make me a better neighbor when life poops on other people's heads.

Requiem for Saudi Arabia (or, "In Which Abu Halen Plagiarizes Himself")

I wrote the below post in August 2014, a week or two after finishing my two-year assignment in Saudi Arabia. I posted it to my blog back then, but Shannon made me take it down because she was worried someone would read it and I would get fired. She needn't have worried. First, no one actually reads my blog and, second, even if they did, I've learned in the years since then that people write and say a lot more incendiary things than this and don't get fired. And, third, the song "Won't You Be My Neighbor" is more incendiary than this blog post. So, because it's been awhile since I've been able to write any new content for ye olde blogge, and because I'm actually pretty pleased with the below fine piece of literature, let's get this out there.

Passing is allowed, maybe, we're not sure actually. (Empty Quarter, Saudi Arabia; April 2014)

Do I miss Saudi Arabia? Yes. The same way you miss having major oracular surgery. Sure, it's painful and you have to eat through a straw for a week afterward and blood trickles from the corner of your numb mouth as you try to smile sweetly at the cute nurse from your post-surgery wheelchair while your still-slightly-anesthetized eyes cross and you pee in your pants a little because you're sort of having a semi-waking dream about Hoover Dam.

But it's also kind of endearing the way you can't feel your mouth so you smear ice cream all over your face trying to get it between your lips. And it's kind of interesting how your cheeks look like hot air balloons and the pain medication makes Pink Floyd exciting to listen to. And also you sound like Brenden Fraser when you talk. But it's all kind of funny and interesting and strange in an exotic, morphine-addled sort of way. I miss Saudi Arabia sort of like I miss that type of thing.

I miss waiting for flights at Jeddah airport. As I await my final flight out, Pakistanis sleep stretched out on the tile floor next to a dreadlocked Spaniard snuggling with his halter-topped girlfriend. I'm not quite sure why this couple is in Saudi Arabia, and I am even less sure why they are cuddling in public in Saudi Arabia. Cuddling in Saudi Arabia sort of seems like making out during Mass or something, except it's the kind of Mass where the priest has legal authority to decapitate you.

I decide to use the bathroom, just for nostalgia's sake, because the bathrooms at Jeddah airport are so funky. The humidity rises 30 percent as you step through the doorway, and it smells like there are holes in the ground with pee in them behind each stall door. This is because there are holes in the ground with pee in them behind each stall door. Also, if you want to wash your hands when you're finished, you have to wait for the guy in front of you to take his feet out of the sink. I usually take my chances with the germs.

I have a layover in Paris. I have a headache, but I can't decide if it's because I'm tired or hungry or if I got consumption back in the bathroom in Jeddah. I try to catch some shuteye, but I'm self-conscious of how my jaw unhinges and my mouth hangs open when I sleep, like a python eating a cow, so I give up and pay 20 bucks for an "omelette" that is the size of a large potato chip but probably not as healthy.

Me and those one guys (not pictured: the fact that it was 105 degrees in that tent). (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; July 2014)

On the 11 hour flight from Paris to Salt Lake City I am seated next to a Nigerien grandmother and her daughter. And her daughter's 10 month-old twins. I feel sorry for both myself and the Nigerien ladies. I try to watch an educational documentary on Pearl Jam, but I feel bad for watching Eddie Vedder crowd surf while the Nigerien grandma wrestles with the babies beside me. So I volunteer to take a baby for awhile and the grandma says yes, and then, there I am, bouncing an African baby in my arms as I stroll up and down an airplane aisle, which is not something I ever really foresaw myself ever doing, to be honest. I sing the baby "Let It Go," because I'm too tired to remember any Death Cab For Cutie lyrics, and I think my bad breath short circuits some of the baby's neurons, because she calms down. Later, the grandma tells me in her broken English that "Americans have tender hearts" and I almost laugh in her face. Americans! Tender hearts! Ha! She's never been to Reno.

In Salt Lake City I stand next to the baggage carousel until I'm the last lonely man, waiting for a bag that will never come. It's okay though -- I got the bag with my extra clothes hangers and alarm clock and yoga strap in it. They only lost the bag with all my clothes. All. My. Clothes. This is how the universe repays me for bouncing an African baby for two hours.

Eleventh Place is the Tenth Loser (or, "Kodai Hills Ultramarathon Rundown")

It is 4:30 am and the elevation is 7,000 feet and one hundred people are gathered in the dark to go running. One guy has no shirt and he's beating his chest and shouting "It's cold!!" He is correct. It's 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I'm talking to my new friend Sharvil. He has a neat watch, and I want it, but I can't figure out how to get it off his wrist without him noticing.

Abu Halen is so fast he can pass people with his eyes closed. (Photo by Pushkar Photography)

We're next to a lake in Kodaikanal, a little town in the hills of southern India. During the day it's crowded and smelly, but here in the night it's quiet and smelly. The stars are blazing across the black sky and we all pour through the starting gate. I start in last place, but only cuz I want to. I could totally have started in first place if I'd have wanted to, I just didn't want to. Back off.

The first kilometer takes us through the outskirts of town. The world is asleep. The only sound is footfalls, some quiet conversation among runners, a few guys blowing big loogies. We are a happy pack passing in and out of circles of streetlamp light. Everyone is happy. This is because we've been running for less than five minutes and none of us yet want to be hit by a car to stop our suffering.

We begin gently climbing. The happy pack thins out, the town dwindles, the stars pulse. They glitter on the surface of the universe, and I watch them intently, and I trip on a speed bump, and I get back up, and I say something witty like, "Oops," and I run and watch the stars some more. 

The climbing is relentless. The incline is merely moderate, but it goes on and on and up and up through the darkness. Everybody's walking. I set my pace at what I would describe as a trot -- less than a jog, more than a power hike, but enough to send the message to the walkers that I am a force to be reckoned with, or at least not insulted too loudly, or at the very least not pushed down after being loudly insulted. I pass a lot of people who look intimidated by my trot. Actually, I can't really see them because it's too dark, but I am almost certain they are intimidated by my trot, or possibly by my protruding belly, which is a result of my misshapen rib cage and not my being chubby, hopefully. Maybe. Probably not.

Soon I'm alone. The trees close overhead, it's completely dark except for my headlamp, and my radiant personality, which is actually more like infrared in that you can't see it without special equipment, such as poor character judgment. 

The miles melt away. Dawn breaks. About two hours into the race, I pass a viewpoint. The orange sun is cresting the forested hills. I stop and watch the sunbeams reach through the misty air, like they're feeling their way toward me. I am one with the morning. And then the short lady I passed a half mile ago runs past and says something like, "Too slow, Joe!" except maybe it's in Tamil or something, because I don't actually understand, but I'm sure she's taunting me, or my mother, or my income tax bracket.

Not bad for a phone camera pointed directly into the sun. (Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, India; Jan 2018)

Thirteen miles in I hit the turnaround point. There are two guys leaning against a motorcycle, and one of them points down the road and says, "Blah blah blah 200 meters." So I keep running down the road. After about five minutes, the motorcycle pulls up beside me and the guy says, "No, the turnaround point was back there where you passed us!" I say, "OK, but why did you point down this road, and why did it take you five minutes to come get me?" He says, "Blah blah blah blah blah." And I'm like, Ugh, why is my life so hard.

The next seven miles are uphill. I pass the short lady who made fun of my hairy ears. I pass a couple of other people too. I'm to the point of an endurance race where you can't string together three coherent thoughts in a row, so you're reduced to thinking about whether birds would fly upside down into an upside down bird feeder, what could be a cool Blink-182 song to cover if you could play the piccolo, the best way to remove dried hair coloring solution from an emu's scalp, how far it is from Davenport to Rivendell (traveling strictly by narwhal), and words that rhyme with "omelette."

At the last aid station 10 miles from the finish, a monkey confronts me for my Snickers bar. A race volunteer chases the monkey away with a stick. "Bad monkey," I say, because I don't get to say "bad monkey" very much and I think you should take advantage of things like that. A dog tries to attack me at mile 28 while I'm passing through an awful village, but then the dog smells me and slinks away to die. My stench is flammable, so when somebody lights a match as I leave town, the whole village blows up behind me, like I'm Rambo, except more articulate.

I roll back into Kodaikanal, I circle the lake. It's mid-morning, the town is bursting with Indian tourists. I'm not sure I'm on the right route anymore. The traffic is insane, I'm cutting between cars in stop-and-go traffic. There are some runners who recently finished the 20k race, and they cheer for me and tell me they like my hairy ears, and they also give me directions. I see the finish line. Me and my misshapen rib cage are awesome! I think as I cross the finish line about 6 hours and 20 minutes and 30 miles after starting. No one's around, so I give myself a fist bump. Then I'm like, I think I need some pizza. Later, they post the results, and I finished in 11th place out of 96 finishers, and I'm like wuuuuuuuuut? Guess I showed that monkey.

Thank Goodness His Bum Smelled of Motor Oil (or, "The Unfolding of a Typical, Average Long-Weekend Trip in India")

Five o' clock in the morning, check my phone, the Uber to the airport is scheduled. I'm pulling my suitcase down a dark side street, the smog swirls like ghosts around the tops of the orange street lamps and its little tongues drift down toward the street. I try not to breathe them, but whatever. Everybody has to die sometime. I wait at the pickup spot. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Dude, where's my car? Phone check, the driver cancelled eight minutes ago. I get it. Some days you just don't feel like going to work, you know? I call another car. Maybe I'll make my flight, maybe not. I sip the soupy air and try not to care.

Double yesssssssssssss. (Vinobanagar, Tamil Nadu, India; Jan 2018)

On the plane, awaiting takeoff. They're playing schmaltzy Christmas music over the PA. The date is January 26. The location is the capital of a Hindu majority nation with a sizeable Muslim minority. I tap my fingers to "Silver Bells." It's Christmas time in the city... soon it will be Christmas day. Three hundred forty more days, I tell myself. The man across the aisle from me is 77 years old, probably. Maybe 86. Possibly 112. He looks and smells as though this is first time on a paved road, experiencing electricity, except he has a Nokia. He is holding his cane. The flight attendant makes him stow it overhead. He jams his butt in my face as he does so, and it smells like motor oil, and I'm grateful for that. Later, as we accelerate down the runway for takeoff, he phones somebody on his Nokia, talks really loudly, holds the phone in front of his mouth as he speaks into it. We take off anyway.

I booked my hotel in a little town in the mountains of southern India online two months ago. A five-hour flight and four-hour car ride later, I'm there. Carsick, but there. The town is bursting with humanity. It's a holiday weekend, everybody's here. I drag my suitcase into the hotel lobby. The guy behind the counter says this hotel is under renovation, but don't worry, he has this friend with a different hotel. Yes, I say, but I booked this hotel, and I paid for it too. Also, I add, if the hotel is closed for renovation, why are you here? His English is too poor to explain anything, and my Hindi -- or maybe it's Tamil he's speaking -- is too poor to argue, so I climb into the guy's car and he drops me at a junk hotel where the bed is a board and there's no running water. Dang, I say to myself. India wins again.

Two mornings later I am eating breakfast a different hotel. It's my fourth hotel in 36 hours. I spent much of the weekend walking around town, upgrading hotels by increments as I found places with vacancy on this busy three-day weekend. This place is decent. The bed is okay, there's a little hot water, and I watched an infomercial over and over for two hours in Hindi advertising a human growth hormone that you take to get taller, and it's completely safe, and when you're taller you get jobs and girls, and a motorcycle too. My breakfast is served to me on a leaf, and there is a cockroach on the leaf, but don't worry, it scurries away. I just eat anyway, because my standard of living has descended to "Nyeh."

Yesssssssssssss. (Vinobanagar, Tamil Nadu, India; Jan 2018)

Hyderabad airport, it's dusk, I've landed. There's a guy with sign that more or less has my name on it, so I follow him to a car. He throws it in reverse and backs into a passing vehicle. He makes a surprised sound, which surprises me, because I thought the headlights coming right at us as we backed up sort of presaged the fact of an oncoming car. The two drivers exit their cars, discuss something for less than 90 seconds, and then we all drive away. I want to high five the driver, because it feels like he won somehow, but I want him to focus on me living until dinner time. 

Hyderabad airport, two days later, mid-afternoon, I'm going home. The bus that shuttles us to the plane is parked outside the gate, and there's a flimsy metal step that they push over to the bus to help us step up and inside. If you step on it head-on, you're probably fine, but I approach it from an angle, and it slides just a tad. I adjust and board the bus with no problem, but I think to myself, Man, that's a lawsuit-waiting-to-happen if this were a country with laws. A minute later, a guy hits the step and it slides right out from under him, and he lands in a heap, and I think of the last five days and I'm like, I know how you feel, buddy.

Abu Halen having a party with his mullet, but no one else is really having fun. (Nalgonda, India; Jan 2018)

On Surfing in Sri Lanka, Kraft Dinners, and Dung Beetles

Savannah says that surfing is the coolest thing in the world. That may be true, but also Kraft macaroni and cheese is pretty decent, I think. One time, I was at my friend's house with a bowl of mac & cheese in my hand, and I asked him if I could eat it in the living room if I promised I wouldn't drop it on the nice living room carpet. I thought it was funny to say that, because it's impossible to drop a bowl of mac & cheese unless it's on fire, or the bowl is made out of living dung beetles. 

Weligama Bay, Sri Lanka (Jan 2018)

But I digress. So I promised I wouldn't drop the bowl of mac & cheese, and then I stepped into the living room, and I immediately dropped the bowl of mac & cheese. I couldn't really tell you what happened. One second I was holding onto the bowl, and next second it was falling, and I was thinking, as it sort of turned over in the air on the way down, "This is suuuuuper embarrassing." I think the guy's mom was kind of mad, but I was like, "Sorry, I was thinking of dung beetles," and then they were like, "Maybe you better go home now, and refrain from coming back, you're an awkward person."

Success in life requires intense focus. (Weligama Bay, Sri Lanka; Jan 2018)

But I digress. Savannah really likes surfing. For her 15th birthday, we flew to Sri Lanka. This wasn't actually her birthday present, in fact I forgot it was her birthday, but then when we were in Sri Lanka, she asked, "What are you getting me for my birthday?" and I thought fast and said, "You're in Sri Lanka. Happy freaking birthday. Now rub my feet." But being in Sri Lanka, rubbing my feet, wasn't good enough for her, so when she saw some bros lounging in the shade of some palm trees on the beach, renting out surf boards, she wanted me to cough up even more money so she could surf. It's like hanging around with me, listening to me talk about myself isn't good enough for her. I said, "I bet those surf boards cost like 30 bucks an hour to rent, forget it. I'm not made of money, except when I want to by myself something expensive, then I'm made of money." Savannah marched right up to the bros and asked them their price, and it turned out we could rent two surf boards and a boogie board for an hour for under five dollars. Clearly the Californians hadn't reached this beach yet and driven up the price of everything like they have everywhere else, particularly the price of donuts in Oregon.

Weligama Bay, Sri Lanka (Jan 2018)

It only took Savannah a couple of tries to stand up on the surf board. I attribute this to her having my genes. My genes are good at everything, at least once they're outside my body and inside someone else's body. My body is like a wet blanket, it smothers all the genius of my genes. That's why I'm pushing 40 and I still entertain myself writing blog posts with references to dung beetles. 

"I approve of this blog post." (Weligama Bay, Sri Lanka; Jan 2018)

Motorcycling in Delhi: Skillful and Stupid Are My Maiden Names

I have a motorcycle. Everybody likes it. "Cool bike," they say. Except Shannon. She doesn't like my motorcycle. "Average bike," she says. And then she says quiet things under her breath about my life insurance, like, "Cool policy."

Riding a motorcycle in Delhi is pretty hard. You have to be skillful, and also stupid, both of which are my maiden names that I would have if I were a maiden. You also need a good filtration mask, because riding in Delhi during the winter is a little like riding on Venus, or some other place where the air is not made of oxygen. In the summertime, the oxygen comes back, but it's pretty hot and humid. The silver lining is that not a lot of bugs smack you in the face while you're riding, because they all died during the winter when the air was like mustard gas. 

You take your car to work, I'll take my bike. (Delhi, India; Oct 2017)

I remember my very first motorcycle was pretty big. Too big, one might say, if one were to be intent on "reporting facts." I learned to ride it in an hour in a big, empty parking lot. My dad coached me. "OK, whatever, don't drop it," he said as he sat in the parked car at the edge of the lot and chewed on a toothpick. I'm not trying to brag, but I was kind of a prodigy on the bike. I hardly hit anything in that whole hour, except the curb, and my dad's parked car, and a tree.

A couple days later I took the 1200cc behemoth to the DMV for a riding test. I didn't realize you had to ride through a maze of traffic cones. It was pretty hard. I ran over most of the cones, and the ones I didn't run over, I knocked over. The test examiner seemed a little upset that I'd smushed the cones. I felt like she was overreacting. They were cones. It's not like I would've run them over if they were people, duh. Unless the people were to have been standing on the street or sidewalk, or in their front yards. Then maybe I would've run them over, but on accident, so it's okay.

Here is my first motorcycle, with which I ruthlessly murdered many traffic cones. (Provo, Utah; Apr 2010)

I have never really learned much about the motorcycles themselves. I just like riding them. I feel like it's not critical for me to know what's happening inside the "V-Twin" or the "stroke chamber" or the "sparky guzzle" or the "choker necklace," as long as the bike goes, you know? 

Once I pulled into a lonely gas station in rural Idaho on my big bike. A few minutes later, a large dude in his 50s with a pony tail and a black leather vest with a skull on it that said something like "I eat social norms for breakfast" roared into the station. "Cool bike," he said. Then he started asking me questions that made me uncomfortable, like "How much horsepower does that bad boy have?" and "What's the torque like?" and "How big is your crankshaft?" I bobbed and weaved with vague answers like "Lots of horses, man!" and "Wow, I'll tell you what!" and wished that he would ask me my religion or political preferences instead. I guess I'm just not into my hobbies enough, except for using Neti Pots, about which I am deathly serious.

Five Little Daydreams (or, "2017 in Review")

I remember a year ago like it's a daydream. When you are always moving, coming or going, counting time zones and fumbling for a foreign word, then maybe life is just a strand of daydreams. You string them up and wear them like pearls, they fall from your nape, rest on your throat, and throb in time with your pulse. 

San Salvador, El Salvador (Apr 2017)

We're at wooden table in March in a little courtyard in Nicaragua, me and Savannah. Evening is rising, the heat is dying, some birds chatter in a dribbling fountain. I'm sick, hunched over the table with a bottle of water and a Coke. They're playing American music, I'm quizzing Savannah on the artists. She's telling me about her hopes, far-off college plans, the social dynamics at school. I watch her speak, watch the lavender fall onto her from the purple sky. I love her so intensely at this instant, it's 5:15. She is the navel of the world right now.

Delhi, India (Sep 2017)

Halen says he's grateful for the shadows that the red rock bluff is throwing down. It's summer in the southern Utah desert, all scrub and dust and bone dry blue sky. Me and Halen are out for a run in the shade, the flaming sun is falling down in the west, pebbles crunch and scratch underfoot. We round the corner of the bluff and beneath us down in the valley there's a daydream draped over the rocks, little houses and green trees, all bejeweled in desert sundown gold. Halen stops, and I stop, and we don't say anything. We just let it all sparkle. My arm climbs up Halen's back and dangles from his shoulder, his arm circles my waist. And we sparkle too.

Delhi, India (Dec 2017)

The earthquake hits a little after six in the evening. It's a 5.1. For the past few days, El Salvador has experienced a "seismic cluster," meaning the earth is excited or bored, so it's shaking all the time. This one feels like a monster. I'm in the kitchen, Shannon yells to the kids. The ground shimmies, the walls moan, the windows rattle, and you sense that if the world willed it, it could throw us right off its back and out into space. Then suddenly it's done and quiet and still. Violet is in the living room. She was coloring when the quake came, and she hit the deck just like we'd taught her. Now she's prostrate, arms and legs splayed wide, exposing as much of her body as possible to anything that might fall from the walls or ceiling. Her face is buried in the carpet and her muffled voice asks if it's all over, because she wants to color. It's the most adorable thing I think I've ever seen.

Rizong Monastery, India (Oct 2017)

I can't hear anything but the wind and crying birds way up here, miles from the lonely highway and hours from a town of any size. Me and Grace are sitting on the roof of a monastery called Rizong, she's scratching drawings into rocks and I'm listening to the day creak by, sharp, cold, and deep blue. The Himalayas are all around us, pressing in. They're impossible, they tower and glower, angular, hard shadow and harsh glare, crushing the earth beneath and impaling the innocent sky overhead. Wind slides over the bony brown ridges, it ruffles Grace's hair. She doesn't look up, she says she's making this little rock into a whale. Scratch, scratch. She's so small in these infinite mountains. I scoot closer to her and she draws a whale and the rocks get older.

Thiksey Monastery, India (Oct 2017)

West Virginia is all wet today. Ripped up clouds lay broken in the crags of the hills, bleeding rain all over everything. It streaks across the windows of our bus. Shannon is watching May outside, she's listening to a podcast, she's absently holding my hand. She's wearing a stupid hoodie she got at Goodwill. It says "I (heart) New York," but the heart is a Mickey Mouse head. Shannon has never been to New York, and she doesn't think highly of Disneyland. But the hoodie was six dollars, and she was cold. She presses a little closer to me, still watching the water fall out of the sky. I pretend I'm looking outside too, but I'm really just watching the flat, gray daylight play across her face. I think how you can believe that everything is okay, even when it's not. That's what it was like before I knew Shannon, I say to myself as I count her eyelashes. I remember it like it's a daydream.

Getting Home for Thanksgiving Dinner in Delhi (or, "Lines In My Face")

The shop where they maintenance my motorcycle is in a part of town that's gray and brown. Maybe there are other colors too, but they're pushed around by the concrete and dust so they mostly just skulk in the dirty corners, faded and sad. 

I just dropped off my bike. It's 11:30 in the morning in India. It's Thanksgiving day. The Uber driver is 20 minutes away. 22 minutes away. 24 minutes away. He's driving the wrong direction, away from me. I cancel the Uber, hail a tuk-tuk, dull green with a listless yellow roof. The driver overcharges. but I don't care. My sphere of control has collapsed and it's crushing me. The midday sun is weak, wintered over, riding low, its light scattered wide by the dirt and truck exhaust. The world is cold and sepia somehow.

Reston, Virginia (Jan 2007)

We idle in the traffic, I'm three feet from the driver in the next tuk-tuk over. He's lazily staring at me, he lifts a home-rolled cigarette to his mouth, he purses his lips and pulls. The smoldering end flares. Smoke wafts from his nose. I think of the closed door to a room on fire. Maybe this man is burning. My eyes sting.

And I'm lost. I'm a foreigner in a tuk-tuk, my hair is tangled, my skin is heavy. I am trillions and trillions of atoms and I am crammed into seething Delhi, but I am alone. Somebody is selling beachballs in the traffic. I want one. Right now, I want one the way I want to fall backward all the way to Eden, just for awhile. Not a garden, just an hour in a long ago August in a car on a highway, there's music and a girl and she's airy skin, summer hair, and we're driving and I see us in the rear-view and we're endless, we're forever. But now she's just a line in my face.

There's a footbridge over the raucous freeway and it's empty except for me and the man sitting there without legs. His bare chest is beachwood and his beard is a blizzard and his stare hurts like a hole. I force myself to stare back, I see his stumps, his brittle ears, the creases in his stomach, I see it all. This man is here. I won't pretend he isn't. I'm willing him to exist and hoping that this act means I do too.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (May 2007)

The cacophonous freeway traffic below us is snarled, but there's a man on a creaky bicycle, winding between the buses and cars. He's steering with one hand, carrying a potted marigold in the other. That's all he's doing. I remember my mom had marigolds on the porch a long time ago, they smelled like sugar, my dad stood beside them when he came home. I'm on a footbridge in India, but I can hear the doorknob turning. My dad is home.

The marigold is beachball bright, orange as August. And somehow it ignites and it's a nova and all the colors come out, it's sunrise at noon, I'm lost but alive. We exist, me and the man without legs. We're endless, we're forever. When I die, maybe he'll be a line in my face. Now the guy with a marigold on a creaky bicycle is gone, swallowed in the traffic. But now the world is on fire. That man was burning.

Fire, Dust, and the Holy Ganges River

Varanasi is the India of popular imagination. Tiny serpentine alleys slither between gaudy temples, drab yoga joints, sad empty English schools, dark little alcoves that promote spiritual enlightenment and smell like urine, colorful sari shops, questionable food stalls, skinny old shirtless guys who look like they've eaten nothing but grass since the 1950s, piles of fresh cow dung, packs of men hauling human corpses on festively decorated stretchers, bored policeman, insistent and deformed beggars, sweet wafting clouds of incense, and other agents of sensory overload. 

Hinduism has no holier site than Varanasi, which sits astride the River Ganges and throttles it with boats and ashes and passionate love and candles and relics and bottomless fervor and trash. The city is also central to Buddhism; Buddha gave his first post-Enlightenment sermon to five followers in a hot clump of trees a few miles north of the the Ganges. 

I am wandering the cramped streets of old Varanasi with a friend. No idea where I am. It can be enough sometimes just to drift a little. My friend ducks into a temple, but, as a foreigner, I can't go inside. No problem, I say, we'll meet back up in twenty minutes. And I drift away. I want to find something holy. Maybe the Ganges. Doesn't matter if it's really holy or not, as long as it feels holy and you treat it holy. If so, then maybe there's something there, a flash of the vast or a sweet little sigh of some folded up memory. 

The crowds thin as I move into narrower lanes. It's quiet. I squeeze past a droopy-skinned cow, an old man with an upper lip bursting with a white mustache. A guy in a tiny shop asks me if I'm thirsty. I shake my head and touch my heart and smile. He touches his own heart too.

Then there's smoke and somebody's chanting. I round a corner. Fire and the Ganges. The river is wide, the fire beside the water is hot. I can feel it on my knuckles. Especially on my knuckles. I don't know why that is. They're burning dead bodies. When you're cremated in Varanasi, you're assured salvation. And I've found salvation, all heat and sparks. I watch the fire send smoke and souls to the blue sky.

You would think this grotesque, macabre. But it isn't. It's careful and solemn. And anyways I'm looking for something holy, and there's holiness in the elemental. And fire and water and dust are the beginning and the end of us, aren't they? That's as elemental as it gets.

Later, I'm in a boat on the black water Ganges. The sun is gone, they're performing the Ganga Aarti on the shore, flame and incense. Jangling bells forever. The boat rocks and I look out over the dark waves. They're dotted with bobbing pinpricks of light, floating candles, little prayers set sail from sinners' hands on the shore. The hope of redemption. Salvation. In my life, I've seen a lot of ways the fallen try to rise, to reach out for something gracious and unseen, to believe they're more than dust that burns and blows away, to become holy. And if it feels holy, and you treat it holy, I can't really tell you it's not.

Family Time in Leh, Ladakh, India (or, "White Trash Winter Ensemble")

We needed a place for our family to sleep, so we asked the woman walking her cows down the street if she had any recommendations. "Follow me," she said. Shannon and I looked at each other and shrugged. We'd never gone wrong following a cow lady before. On the other hand, we'd never gone right following a cow lady either. We actually hadn't ever followed a cow lady before. But you only live once! So we followed the cow lady to her house, and it turned out that she had a couple rooms upstairs in her family's house, and they only wanted about fifteen bucks per room per night. That seemed reasonable, even though there was no hot water, nor towels, nor toilet paper. And no heat, despite the fact that we were 12,000 feet up in the Himalayas in late-October. But you can't really complain -- as they say, you get what you pay for. Or, more accurately, you don't get what you don't pay for.

Sisters who write on rocks together, stay together. (Saspol, India; Oct 2017)

Leh, a small town perched high in the Himalayas (between 11,000 and 12,000 feet), near both Tibet and Pakistan, is technically part of India. But the only thing Indian about it is the overwhelming Indian military presence in town and the regions roundabout. This is because, in case you've been sniffing glue real hard for the past 70 years, India has poor relations with Pakistan. And kind of with China too. Leh is only about a two-hour flight from Delhi, and October is the cusp between high and low tourist season. This means that there are fewer tourists around and things are a lot cheaper. But it also means that a lot of hotels are closed for the winter and you might have to sleep in the cow lady's house.

Since they've lived most of their lives in hot climates, my kids were pretty excited to go somewhere cold. Until they actually got somewhere cold, then they had second thoughts. Fortunately, Shannon and I had thought ahead and borrowed all manner of coats and hats and sweaters from kind friends (our own belongings, to which we bid farewell last April in El Salvador, have not yet arrived in India). Bundled up in multiple layers of mismatched leggings, jeans, hoodies, hats, and coats, the Abu Halen family resembled a white trash winter ensemble and was prepared to brave temperatures plunging into the 40s and 30s.

12,300 feet. (Hemis, India; Oct 2017)

Now, I recognize that that's not objectively very cold, but after spending the past five years in Saudi Arabia, El Salvador, and now India, temperatures in the 70s feel cold to us. So this felt like an Arctic expedition, and we trained by holding several pre-trip family meetings on the very real possibility that the wind chill could reach sub-50 degrees Farenheit, in which case a Donner Party scenario could set in. "Look, all I'm saying," I told the kids, "is that I think that using a lot of mustard would probably take away some of the 'Ew' factor."

Leh -- and the surrounding region, known as Ladakh -- is heavily Buddhist, but I was surprised and interested to learn that nearly half the population of Leh itself is in fact Muslim. The only Hindus within scores and scores of miles are the Indian army soldiers stationed throughout the mountains. There are several mosques in town, and I loved hearing the calls to prayer, which I've actually missed a lot since leaving the Islamic world in 2014. Our hostess -- the cow lady -- and her family were Muslim, and her kids explained that in school Ladakhi students learn English and Urdu, a language based on the Arabic script and strongly associated with Islam throughout Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan and India. Almost nobody speaks or learns Hindi in Ladakh, because there's just no need. I thought all this was very interesting. My kids were like, "Yes, but is there pizza in this town."

"DONE with monasteries." (Hemis, India; Oct 2017)

Per general norms of propriety in Ladakh, we toured numerous monasteries. The first few were pretty neat. They are generally built in the most inaccessible locations. It's as if monks go walking up into the mountains, and then when they find a place where they're like, "Man, it would SUCK to have to drag building materials up here," that's where they're like, "I think we should drag building materials up here." So the monasteries were fun, but five of the six of us were monastery-ed out after touring three or four of them (Shannon can look at boring things indefinitely, that's her superpower, a really lame one). So finally, I told the guide, "Can we just drive around and stop when we see something cool?"

Innocent to the fact you're supposed to throw them up, not out. (Rizong, India; Oct 2017)

We found a grove of trees flaming with fall colors beside an icy mountain stream and spent an hour there throwing leaves and basking in the sun. Savannah soaked her feet in the stream and flirted with hypothermia (sidenote: love is like hypothermia -- you can't think straight and you really need a snuggle).

Later, we stopped on a big bend in the mighty Indus River. It flowed fast and cold and violently turquoise. The kids skipped rocks, and I watched. The mighty Himalayas towered all around us, countless 20,000 foot peaks seeming to scratch the belly of the blue sky. The shiny Indus snaked by beneath the hard autumn sun. My kids' laughter bounced off the water and the mountains, and I thought, this world, there's so much of it. 

Munchkins beside the Indus. (Saspol, India; Oct 2017)