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)

There is a French Man in the Mountains Who Makes Motorcycles, and He Will Lead You Home

The night I arrived in India, they picked me up from the airport and dropped me outside my apartment building at midnight. I was tired and unsteady, and a bit vulnerable. Then the doorman opened the gate, and there was a motorcycle in the driveway, and in my vulnerable state, I fell. I loved it, and I coveted it. Righteously, of course. My mental to-do list for the morrow changed from "1. Get food; 2. Stay awake at work," to "1. Find out where to get motorcycle; 2. Get food; 3. Stay awake at work."

Naggar, India; October 2017

The next day I saw a man sitting on the steps of my building watching workers put the motorcycle in a crate. The man said he owned the bike, and that he was moving away permanently and immediately. I begged him not to go, told him I needed his motorcycle guru-ness. But, I offered, if he must leave, would he at least give me knowledge as to where I might go to find a motorcycle so fine and retro and heckacool as his. He said, "In the mountains, there is a French man. He will make you a motorcycle." Then he left. He was a little like Gandolf, but shorter and less popular with the Elvish ladies.

I wondered how I would find French Man in the mountains with the knowledge to make heckacool motorcycles. Lacking a company of dwarfs and hobbits to go find him for me, I consulted the internet instead, which I bet Frodo wishes he could've done, because then he would've found that meme that says, "One does not simply walk into Mordor," and he would've been like, "Oh, wait, guys."

Jana, India; October 2017

Because the Man on the Steps had given me the name of French Man's garage, I harnessed the power of the Google and found his phone number, afterwhich I called him on the phone. "Hello," I said. "I would like to know how much it costs for you to make me a heckacool bike." He must've been in on the whole Lord of the Rings thing, because he was like, "Why don't you just come up to the mountains and we'll talk." I remembered that one scene where Saruman was like, "Hey Gandolf, why don't you just come up to my creepy tower thing and we'll talk," and then Gandolf was like, "Sure, seems reasonable," and then Saruman was like, "Hahaha, I'm actually a bad guy, you're the only one in the theater who couldn't see it coming, only jumping off my tower onto the back of a giant eagle that metamorphosed from a tiny butterfly can save you now," and Gandolf was like, "OK." Even so, I agreed to French Man's terms, but I decided to take my twelve year old son along, just in case French Man turned out to be a bad guy, because I can run faster than my son, and it's always the slowest guy who gets it.

We took a plane to Chandigarh, where a guy named Vijay picked us up in a car with seat belts. Thumbs up emoji. He drove us eight hours into the mountains on the most consistently winding and pot-holed roads I've ever seen, behind the smokiest trucks I've ever smelt, all while listening to the raddest Hindi pop music I've ever heard (I've only heard Hindi pop music once). 

I called French Man when we reached Kullu. He said, "Keep driving. Hug the left bank of the river. I'll be standing on the side of the highway smoking." And I was like, "THIS GUY IS THE AWESOMEST GUY IN THE WORLD EVER!!!!" But remember, smoking kills.

Naggar, India; October 2017

In the end, we found French Man. We hung out for awhile on a veranda in the sunshine, then he took us to the sweet action guesthouse he'd arranged for us. Guesthouses are like hostels, except not enough weed is smoked there for them to properly be called hostels. Guesthouses are also somewhat like hotels, but with not enough towels and toilet paper provided to properly be called hotels. Me and Halen liked our guesthouse, except it would've been nice had it been heated. Sometimes the Himalayas are cold. But the blankets were pretty good, made of yak hair, or maybe yak butter, or possibly synthetics. 

French Man took us on a motorcycle ride the next day up in the mountains with another French guy who retired and now just does things like drive in a circle around Australia, and also a French journalist and an Indian journalist, and also an Indian mechanic who I personally witnessed repair a blown carburetor in under 90 seconds using only a rusty nail and a strand of hair from MacGyver's mullet that he had procured on eBay. 

As Vijay drove us back down the winding mountain roads toward home, I asked Halen how the weekend had gone. "It was the best weekend ever, Dad!" he said. "That's great, son," I said. "Also, remember that as long as I can run faster than you, bad guys and wild animals will always get you first, and I'll live. Thanks for that." Dad win.

Selfie Sticks Are the Antithesis of Love (and Other Thoughts More or Less Related to Tom Petty)

Tom Petty died without ever knowing that I exist. Which is kind of a shame, really. Tom Petty was one of those guys I feel like I would've been friends with if we'd have ever met. But we didn't, mostly because we just didn't really run in the same crowds. I've always sort of hung out with people who make five figures, and Tom Petty -- any way you cut the cake -- didn't make five figures. But that doesn't mean I don't feel like I died inside just a tiny bit when Tom Petty's light went out.

You belong somewhere you feel free.

I don't miss Tom Petty because Tom Petty was part of my life. I miss Tom Petty because Tom Petty was a little glob of the stuff that animates my memories. Maybe it feels like your memories will wash away when the stuff that holds them together starts to die. That's something to be sad about I guess, but at the same time you feel lucky you have the memories in the first place.

I'm too young to have had contemporary experiences with Damn the Torpedoes, or even Hard Promises or Southern Accents. But I do recall seeing the video for "Don't Come Around Here No More" and being a little creeped out, to be honest. I was like, "I guess cannibalism is TV-appropriate these days," which is actually a fairly elevated thought for a second-grader.

Full Moon Fever came out when we lived in a one-bedroom apartment by the freeway. It was hot that summer and there was nothing to do except hang out at the pool with my mom. I feel like this is how all 10-11 year olds spend their summers, I don't know why you're judging me. We had a radio we'd take to the pool. Sometimes "Runnin' Down a Dream" would come on. I knew that when Tom Petty said, "Me and Del were singin'/Little runaway," that he was talking about either Del Shannon or Del Taco, and I hoped it was the latter. My mom was proud of me for knowing who Del Shannon was. Later, when I married someone named Shannon, my mom smiled knowingly. 

I got older. Echo came in 1999. It's a bitter work, alternately defiant and resigned, but wholeheartedly brokenhearted. Love wasn't kind to me then, either. "It's the same sad echo when you talk," Tom said. Yeah, you go girl, I said, optimistic that Tom Petty would understand that it was just a figure of speech, and that I knew that Tom Petty is in fact a boy. It was winter all the time those days. My man Tom understood.

Grandma and Grandpa got me Wildflowers for my 16th birthday, which was kind of strange because usually they gave me picture books about the Bible or blank journals or candy corns, which is what older people think candy is, even though candy corns are in fact dried vomit shaped into small colorful cones of yak. I guess Grandma and Grandpa figured now that I was old enough to have my own job and get fired from it, maybe I should get more grown up presents. That and my cool older cousin Zach told them Wildflowers was A) pretty hip with the kids these days, and B) not Satanic, and that therefore it would make a good gift. It's unlikely that Grandma and Grandpa knew that track 2 (and, arguably, tracks 5 and 10 and 12 and 14) was about drugs. I still love Grandma and Grandpa for gifting me that awesome CD, and I still eschew drugs.

The track "Wildflowers" made it onto my wedding video, which is on a VHS tape. Don't judge me, VHS tapes will make a comeback, like vinyl, and then I'll be so far ahead of the coolness curve and I'll sell some future hipster my wedding video for like $8000. I don't think people do wedding videos any more, or if they do they just do it themselves with a Go Pro and a selfie stick, both of which are the antithesis of love. I am serious -- how many couples do you know who take selfies of themselves on selfie sticks and are still together? Probably a lot, and that largely undermines my point, but I'm pretty sure I'm still right notwithstanding. 

Wedding videos used to be a thing though. There's me and Shannon in the video, young, sunny, oblivious, untested, hopeful, free. "You belong among the wildflowers, you belong somewhere close to me," Tom says, as me and Shannon on the video snuggle beside a colorful snatch of flowers in the long ago sun.

It's just a memory. But there's a bridge that takes us back and forth between then and now. My children hear "Wildflowers" sometimes. "You belong with your love on your arm, you belong somewhere you feel free," Tom says. The kids perk up. "Hey! This is that you-love-Mom song." Yes. Yes it is. Thanks, Tom.

Monkey Bullies and the Taste of a Carnival

India is all heaviness. It tastes like sweat and smells like struggle and feels raw and bony. Life here is unrestrained. It bubbles and seethes and jumps its banks and washes all over. And if you run from it, it will catch you and cover you with the weight of skin and blood and eye whites. But if you wade into the water with arms open, India changes. It tastes like a carnival and smells like colors and feels open and endless. 

A quiet carnival. (Purana Qila, Delhi, India; Sep 2017)

I'm in the backseat of an Uber and we're oozing down a thoroughfare that would be six lanes wide if lanes existed here. The traffic is alive with pealing horns and grinding gears. Cars and trucks and buses and motorcycles weave around each other, and for some reason I think of someone braiding hair. Then the traffic is coming apart like a zipper around a stark naked man standing in the middle of the highway, long gray hair and beard and bared teeth and wild eyes like a nude Moses parting a sea of glass and steel and exhaust. As we move around the naked man, I study the other drivers and passengers. Nobody pays him any attention. Apparently standing in the middle of the road without clothes is pretty normal. And I think how, wow, this is pretty weird.

There's a wall beside the sidewalk, and on the other side of the wall is a tangled forest. Banana peels litter the concrete, and monkeys sit atop the wall, munching the spoils they've won from passing motorists. And I'm running past the monkeys on the sidewalk, the only fool exercising at ten in the morning with the temperature edging over ninety and the humidity hovering in the eighties. Some of the monkeys saunter onto the sidewalk ahead of me and one strikes an aggressive pose as I approach. I slow down and stop and the monkey takes a step toward me, so I retreat, which seems to satisfy it. So I run back the other way up the road, weaving between the banana peels, having just been bullied by a monkey, and I think how, wow, this is pretty funny.

Cleaning the outdoor mosque. (Jama' Masjid, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

After missing a turn, my Uber driver executes a U-turn, drives back toward the intersection on the wrong side of the road, makes the turn against a red light across heedless oncoming traffic, and then gets pulled over by a cop, who calls him from the car and slaps him with a 500-rupee fine. My driver returns angry and tells me in Hindi, which I don't speak, that I need to pay him 500 rupees because he just got a ticket. I decline to do so, seeing as how I was not driving at the time of the infraction. He slams the door and returns to argue with the cop some more, so I go ahead and cancel the trip, exit the car, and decide to just walk.

I angle off the noisy main road into a vibrant, gritty neighborhood. Men are cooking things over open fires, young boys are rolling inflated bicycle tire tubes down the street, and women wearing clothes screaming with color are balancing plates piled with spices atop their heads. A young man is riding a bicycle jimmy rigged into a little pickup truck with a bed resting on twin wheels behind the rider's seat. He stops beside a small family crouched low together in the dust, and the smiling father lifts a girl, six or seven years old, I suppose, into the bed of the bicycle. The young man laughs and peddles down the street toward me, and the girl in the bed is laughing too, eyes wide, hot wind pushing her hair back away from her smooth face. Our eyes meet as she passes, and I smile, and so does she, and I think how, wow, everything is beautiful right now.

Commuting in Delhi: How to Carpe Diem and Maybe Even Caveat Emptor

There are various ways to get to and from work in Delhi. I will note the pros and cons of each.

1) Walk. The major drawback to walking is your likely death. You would contract a Civil War-era malady or be mauled by a tuk-tuk or asphyxiated by poopy air or felled by heat stroke or menaced by a boar, or a peacock. Also, you could trip on an uneven sidewalk and sprawl into a poopy puddle, which is very, very funny. Please share video.

The risks of walking. Also, do you know where your Pepsi has been. (Delhi, India; August 2017)

On the upside, walking is cheap, and there are lots of dogs to pet if you like dogs, but be sure to burn off your petting hand afterward, so as to properly disinfect. 

2) Ride your bike. The upside to commuting on a bike is that you get to wear spandex. There are not enough opportunities in this life to wear super tight clothing in socially acceptable contexts, so when the chance arises you should carpe diem, and also res ipsa loquitur, and maybe sometimes you should caveat emptor. 

Riding a bike in Delhi is more like riding a tricycle. Anyone can do it, if you want to DIE by squirrels. (Delhi, India; August 2017)

Actually you shouldn't ride your bike, because maybe you would crash by slipping on poop or getting clipped by a motor scooter or catching your front tire in a pothole. Airborne bacteria would then quickly infect your wounds, and in your weakened state you would just lie there on the side of the busy street in your spandex, feeling vaguely embarrassed by your bright, form-fitting outfit, sinking into delirium as the feral squirrels gnaw at your asphalt-encrusted flesh.

3) Uber. Uber in Delhi is actually a reasonable means of transportation, but trifling annoyances can accumulate over time and make you want to stab people with a candlestick, or maybe a lead pipe, or even possibly the revolver. The main Uber annoyance is that, probably one-third of the time, the driver has poor data coverage or else runs out of phone battery. Navigation services therefore cease and the driver has literally no idea where he's going. On numerous occasions I've had to issue verbal driving directions to my Uber driver, which isn't the end of world, but does leave me feeling like I'm not getting all expected Uber services (to the drivers' credit, they all seem to know the English words "left," "right," "straight," and "Katy Perry").

All that said, the upside of Uber in Delhi is that it's quite cheap -- two or three dollars will get you most places, and even the more distant parts of the city and the heaviest traffic shouldn't push your bill past four or five bucks.

Tuk-Tuks are more fun, and offer you direct access to all the smells.

The view from a tuk-tuk. It smelled like cool things. (Delhi, India; July 2017)

4) Motorcycle. By far the most stylish form of transportation, especially for Indian women, who all elegantly ride sidesaddle behind the driver in their bright, colorful clothing and old brain-bucket, WWI military issue helmets. Even as their testosterone-laden chauffeurs weave dangerously in and out of crazed stop-and-go traffic, these lady riders gracefully perch on the back seat with placid, contented expressions on their faces. I could probably do an entire documentary on how awesome these sidesaddle riders are, but I don't have a video camera, or any interest in making a documentary about anything except cheese.

Oooohhhhhhh yeah. (Delhi, India; August 2017)

5) Have a driver drive you to work in your own car. This mode of transportation allows middle-class expatriates, who can barely afford to shop at Trader Joe's in their home countries, feel like the 1%. And that is what life is all about.

6) Drive your own car to work. No expatriates in Delhi do this. If you are thinking of doing this, stop thinking such wrong thoughts.

If You've Never Been to Qutb Minar... (How Do You Even Live With Yourself)

My kids are reaching the age where I can no longer force them to do things they don't want to do, like leave the house. Well, I suppose I can force them, but the consequences of doing so are graver than they once were, I feel. Whereas when they were smaller they might whine a little when made, against their will, to do some activity, I could typically buy their acquiescence with something as cheap as ice cream, or not making them eat ants. But now, enforcing my will too heedlessly could cause them to rebel against my parental authority by getting tattoos of Minecraft architecture, or listening to Dan Fogelberg, or sniffing glue (which I admit smells good in certain contexts, like when you live in Topeka and have no prospect of leaving).

Kind of a party. (Qutb Minar, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

So when we had a free Saturday afternoon recently, Shannon and I decided to ditch the kids and go tourist-ing ourselves. The kids thought this a great idea, saluted our parenting prowess, and urged us to stay gone as long as we liked. We went to Qutb Minar, a large complex of ruins not far from our flat, crowned by a 237-foot minar, or tower, built of red sandstone and marble, and etched with exquisite Arabic calligraphy, largely Koranic. The tower was built between the 12th and 14th centuries, and several other ruined/partially-restored structures -- including a mosque, a Sufi tomb, and a madrasa -- fill out the complex.

My main impression from our several hour wander around the ruins was sweat. Sweat, for me, is a basic fact of life when temperatures top about 90 and humidity rises above, say 85%, which describes all waking hours in Delhi during the summer. As long as I am outdoors, I am sweating. The key is to just give yourself to the sweat, to embrace it, to let it wash over you in glorious cascades of fragrance. In this way, I felt that I was the wettest, and most beautiful, person at Qutb Minar.

Part of what used to be a religious school, where people now urinate. But not Shannon. (Qutb Minar, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

This is not merely a subjective self-assessment, but a veritably objective truth. I was SO beautiful and SO attractive, that I was stopped by more than a half-dozen Indian tourists throughout the afternoon who wanted selfies with me. Shannon was also repeatedly asked to join passerby for photos, which suggests that, like other famous and photogenic supercouples like Brangelina, we clearly need a supercouple name. I propose Shabu Halen. All of the requests for us to pose for selfies has nothing to do with the fact that Indians love taking selfies with any and all foreigners, probably even Michele Bachmann. 

"Bucket list CHECK! Selfie of me and a lady twice my age." (Qutb Minar, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

All in all Qutb Minar is a pretty remarkable site. The signage was very adequate, with excellent English translations, the architecture was fascinating, and careful, observant visitors will note the clear Sufi influences throughout the ruins (for example, iconography, which is taboo in most of the orthodox Islamic world, is evident on the capitals of numerous columns throughout the site). I was a little disappointed that you can't take the staircase up to the top of the tower, but apparently this is because in 1981 the lights in the stairwell went out and all the people inside stampeded and a bunch of people died. That said, Great White rock concerts are still allowed. I'm just saying.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Qutb Minar though is the "Iron Pillar," which is only about 20 feet tall, but really old. Some think it was constructed around 400 AD. It's also really heavy, apparently -- my attempts to lift it in the name of science were thwarted because it's anchored in concrete four feet deep, and also there's a fence around it. And also my hands were sweaty, so I probably wouldn't have been able to get a good grip. But I'm told it weighs over six tons, which is more than the state of Rhode Island (excluding the asphalt). 

We Chased Pigeons (and Saw Poo)

Man, it got really hard to blog once my family arrived in India and began demanding "time" and "attention" and "cash." Probably, if I was single, I would have time to have like four careers simultaneously: diplomat, pro Zelda player, successful baseball watcher, and partner in a firm where people eat Grape Nuts. And also I would blog a lot. But instead, I have a family, and they don't leave a lot of time for blogging. Though, in the grand scheme of things, they are in fact better than blogging, and better even than all the careers I've ever had, except being the ice cream man, which was akin to taking part in the Rapture.

Here are a series of vignettes of life in Delhi lately.

Busy busy. (Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

My birthday was a few weeks ago, and when it's my birthday I get to do whatever I want. So I made my family come with me to Old Delhi. Walking through Old Delhi is sort of like walking through that cantina in Mos Eisley -- there are a lot of strange-looking people hanging around, they don't speak your language, and it feels like they would win in a fight between them and you, because they probably would not have any qualms with eating you. We squeezed through the narrow, traffic-and-humanity-clogged lanes, dodging tuk-tuks and street food hawkers, and ended up at Jama' Masjid, India's largest mosque. We chased pigeons there.

We did a good job with the pigeons. (Jama' Masjid, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

My kids started school a while ago. The bus picks them up a block and a half from our house, and to get to the bus stop you have to walk past the dump. It smells like a dump. Sometimes there are cows there eating the garbage. They are holy cows. On the first day of school, the school bus (which isn't yellow, but which is instead the kind of bus Japanese tourists would take from the airport to the Grand Canyon) picked up my children, but then couldn't leave our bus stop, because a cow was ambling in front of it. I thought that was a funny thing. Cows are funny. And holy.

"YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!!" (Vasant Vihar, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

Probably one of my least favorite things is being impaled with a dull lightning rod as it concurrently is struck by lightning. But riiiiiiight behind that is attending back-to-school orientation for parents, which I was obliged to do recently given my position as an ostensibly decent father. I feel like parents' back-to-school orientations should consist of a guy standing up at the front of the auditorium and putting his email address up on the projector screen and saying "Email me if you need something." And then after that there are bottomless Cokes and equally endless Choco Tacos, and then on your way out the door they give you a $100 bill for showing up. Our actual back-to-school orientation, however, lasted all day, and alternated between boring and reeeeeeally boring. But they did offer free lunch, with pretty good lemonade and chicken burgers, because you shouldn't eat cows, because they're funny and holy.

Abu Halen getting a cool drink after enduring The Pooping Place. Also, Abu Halen's staff, per usual, preps him for the photo shoot. (Khan Market, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

Me and Shannon went for a run in a wildlife reserve near our house. Really, it's not a wildlife reserve per se, but more of peacock reserve. Maybe peacocks are endangered in India, I don't know. I just know there were a lot of peacocks, and a wild boar. And, also, we made a wrong turn and happened upon what could only be termed, "The Pooping Place." The dirt path led down a corridor lined with low bushes in which, over the course of a good hundred yards, at least a half dozen men were squatted, pooing. We were unsure whether it would be more awkward to simply proceed or to turn around and run away screaming, so we opted for the former. Shannon handled it admirably, saying nothing apart from, "Yep," in response to my statement of the obvious: "It appears that these men are pooping." We have marked that spot on Google Maps and will not be returning.

Pun Intended (or, "Some Thoughts on Bodily Fluids")

If frustration is unmet expectations, and contentment is the opposite of frustration, then I was contented to see four men peeing on the sidewalk on my way home from work yesterday.

Following that stream of thought (pun intended), last week I was in an underdeveloped marketplace around dinner time, so I found the least sketchy-looking eatery I could -- an Asian restaurant, creatively called The Asian Restaurant -- and sat down inside beside a large window to peruse the menu. As I did so, an Asian woman in a floral dress stood up from a nearby table, strode briskly outside through the front door, stopped just outside my window, and threw up.

I haven't pulled out my DSLR yet, and I felt it somehow cruel to try to take a picture of a vomiting woman, so this phone picture from one of my daily strolls will have to suffice. (Delhi, India; Jul 2017)

I watched with neither interest nor disinterest. I was not disinterested because I felt that I needed to see what was splashing onto the concrete -- noodles? Chicken Maii? Stir fry? -- so as to take special care to order something besides the regurgitated meal. Yet I was not interested because I feel it unbecoming to be interested in vomit. Indeed, life oozes paradoxes such as these, pun intended.

In Which Abu Halen Lands in India and Walks Aimlessly About

I do not know anything about India. But I know more than I did a couple months ago, because I read two books about India. One was on Partition, in which I discovered that India and Pakistan dislike one another, and also that there was a person named Ghandi who clearly tried to make himself look like Dhalsim from Street Fighter II. The other was about the Delhi Mutiny of 1857, which made me aware that other bad things were happening in the world in 1857 apart from James Buchanan and the overall lack of Kris Kross.

Not peeing. (Delhi, India; Jun 2017)

Also, I landed in India last week, a little before midnight. After not sleeping, despite having been awake for the preceding 55 hours, I got up in the morning and took a stroll around my neighborhood. Almost immediately, I happened upon a Brahman cow, which stopped beside an economy car and vigorously urinated on the hot pavement. A man repairing his bicycle chain 10 feet away didn't appear to notice, an impressive feat of nonchalance that would be akin to casually texting your dad while someone emptied the contents of a small tributary to the Sweetwater River onto the sidewalk directly beside you.

And I saw a ninja riding a motorcycle, completely garbed in black, including his face. I obviously didn't get a picture, because, ninja. 

Someone at work told me that near my flat there is a mall that prohibits urinating cows, so I got a rickshaw and asked to be taken to "the mall." Blank stare. "The mool." Blank stare. "The mahl." Blank stare. "The mmmmmaaaaaaallllllll." Blank stare. "Forever 21." Off we went.

I ate at TGI Friday's, because I remember liking the waitresses there when I was younger:

Me: "My Coke is empty. Would you refill it without charge, since I'm good-looking?
Cute TGI Friday's Waitress: Refills are free regardless of how attractive you are.
Me: Niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice. So, pick you up when your shift is over?
Cute TGI Friday's Waitress: Absolutely not.
Me: OK. Do you have any slightly less discerning sisters who work at Denny's?

Nowhere is safe from smiles and good will. (Delhi, India; Jul 2017)

So I ate at this disarmingly modern restaurant in South Delhi, and they played Ra Ra Riot, and this was six hours after my morning run took me past slums that smelt like Europe in 1348, and I was suffering from cultural whiplash. And then, ten Mormon missionaries walked into TGI Friday's, in New Delhi, India, white shirts and ties and black name tags, and I thought how it's true what they say, anything can happen in Delhi.

Home is Heartbeats (and Other Thoughts on Home)

I don't know where I live, or where I'm from. I mean it. I'm in the United States for "home leave," as they call it in the Foreign Service, which is really "homeless leave." "Home leave" occurs after you complete an assignment in one location and before you start a new one somewhere else. It's a time to catch up with friends and family, to get back together with the United States, and to wonder what they mean when they call it home.

Behold... tin foil. (Reston, Virginia; Nov 2006)

I own a house in a town where two of my children were born, but five twenty-something females rent it out, and it smells like girl. I remember how my kids swung in the tree swing out back beneath boughs exploding white with cherry blossoms, and how we took our evening meals in the soft gold of evening sunlight spilling through the front window. We've got the deed to the house in a file somewhere, and it stakes us to this plot of land, to these walls. If home is what you own, then this is the place. But I was installing a new doorknob in the front door a couple weeks ago, and one of the tenants loped by in her pajamas, and that's when I knew this isn't home. Home doesn't smell like body lotion and facial cleanser.

There is a town, and I was born and raised there, and it's the color of sunburnt hay. It was home, and sometimes I go there and I drive around, and I still know all the curves of the streets, the way the shadows fall as the afternoon deepens, the big trees and how they sway, the smell of the wind. If home is a memory, then this is the place. But I guess home is more than that, because I'm a stranger in this town, I can feel it in the way the town flows around me. It doesn't flow through me anymore.

My parents live in a different city. They moved into their house the year after I left for college. It used to be blue, but now it's green. I brought a girl to this house one night a long time ago. She said hi to my parents, and then we stood on the deck in the warm summer twilight and watched the airplanes line up along the horizon to come in to land. I don't remember what we talked about, or what she looked like. But I remember the tongues of indigo and violet and salmon fire licking at the edges of the deep navy sky, and I remember feeling infinite, like the universe was pinned to our heartbeats and the stars served no purpose but to spotlight us, like nothing else and no one else existed, or ever had. If home is where you fall in love, then this is the place.

But the girl evaporated somehow, sometime, floated off. And other people blinked into existence, like my lovely wife, and then, one by one, my precious children. And I don't know for certain why there are stars, but I know they shine on both the lucky and the lonely. And I know the universe cares nothing for my heartbeat, but I know there are people who do. And I guess maybe home is in those heartbeats, and the way they thump in time with mine. Yes, that's probably right.

Ode to the Oregon Coast (or, "We Can Hitch a Ride to Rockaway Beach")

Every time I come home, I take my kids on a clockwise circuit of the Oregon coast. You may be wondering why I drive the circuit in a clockwise, rather than a counterclockwise, direction. The reason is because clockwise is superior to counterclockwise; words with the prefix "counter-" before them are always inferior to their sister words without said prefix. For instance, being a counterrevolutionary is worse than being a revolutionary. Counternarcotics don't taste as good as narcotics, and so forth. I feel this is obvious.

She who summits the dune first gets stomach cramps and a violent bout of vomiting. (Pacific City, Oregon; May 2017)

The circuit departs Portland, hits the coast at Pacific City, jaunts north to Tillamook, then finishes in Cannon Beach before returning to Portland via a different highway. I always do this particular circuit, and have regularly done it since I was in high school. I don't branch out to hit other Oregon coast destinations for two reasons.

First, other Oregon coast destinations are less magnificent than the destinations I've chosen for my route -- this is unsurprising, since most of my life choices are maximally magnificent, except for every time I try olives; I know that olives taste like body odor, but sometimes I inexplicably think they suddenly won't. I am consistently wrong about this.

Second, I am a bit of a creature of habit. At Burger King, for instance, I always order a #1 combo. If I were ever to enter a BK and find that they had changed the numbers to which particular combos correspond, I would suffer a panic attack and have to be soothed with a foot massage and steady exposure to Linda Ronstadt songs. So, after following this Oregon coast circuit a few times during my high school years, I now find myself unwilling to try something new and visit, say, Seaside.

I did actually go to Seaside once as a senior in high school to attend some sort of state-wide high school leadership conference, which culminated in a large dance at which I was sandwiched by two young ladies who may or may not have been borderline-inebriated, and whose interest in me likely arose solely from their impaired judgment, and who then proceeded to dance uncomfortably close to me in a manner of which my mother would not approve, which of course forced me to lie about having tuberculosis, all of which has cast an undesirable pall over the idea of ever returning to Seaside.

"Son, in order for me to obtain a desirable photo, I need for you to balance precariously above the tumultuous sea, OK?" "OK, Dad. NP." (Pacific City, Oregon; May 2017)

Pacific City is home to a large sand dune. Sand dunes only serve one purpose, and that is to be climbed by humans. It's not clear what sand dunes did for the millions of years before humans appeared. Probably just sat there, big and dumb, and sometimes a lambeosaurus would lumber by and pee on it. My kids and I climbed Pacific City's 250-foot dune, and once at the top Grace breathed a huge sigh of relief and said, "Phew, now we're safe from a tsunami." I explained that tsunamis are quite rare, and that there is typically plenty of warning before one strikes, but Grace refuses to believe that tsunamis do not simply lurk offshore, waiting for little children to play on the beach before pummeling them with otherworldly force. This type of macabre thinking may be partially explained because last year I made Grace listen to the Jesus & Mary Chain when we went to the store to get salsa.

At the summit, the kids explore the topography of both the dune and their own souls. (Pacific City, Oregon; May 2017)

I was pleased that after climbing and running down the dune twice, the kids weren't overly sandy.  I have strong feelings about sand in my car. If you would like to understand more concerning my feelings about sand in my car, click here

Tillamook, Oregon is where Tillamook cheese comes from. If you have not experienced Tillamook cheese, stay away from me because you are only partially human, and therefore at least partially zombie. Tillamook cheese is, in fact, an element, but they left it off the periodic table because all the other elements opposed its inclusion, or else they said they'd stop being elements and holding organic matter together and making things radioactive. You can understand it like if Corey Fogelmanis started attending your school, then you would feel overshadowed by his effortless charm and stop going to school. Which is a decent reason, actually, to try to attend the same school as Corey Fogelmanis, so you'd have an excuse to drop out. Now, returning to my thesis, Tillamook cheese is the elemental glue that holds the universe together, or, at least, the elemental glue that holds grilled cheese sandwiches together.

When we pass through Tillamook, we do very little apart from make fun of the Tillamook High School mascot (The Cheesemakers, which prompted Halen to muse that "I bet they lose at EVERYTHING,") and visit the Tillamook Cheese Factory. Although mostly my blog is useless and banal, here is an actual nugget of critical information: the Cheese Factory's visitors center is under construction until the summer of 2018; they have erected a temporary visitors center, but it's wildly inferior to the real one. However, the temporary visitors center still has both cheese samples and Tillamook ice cream, so we all just shrugged and rolled with the punches. My kids all ordered ice cream cones that were 1-3 times too large for their little stomachs, so I ended up consuming my own double scoop chocolate-coated waffle cone plus roughly 1.5 additional double scoop chocolate-coated waffle cones into my significantly larger stomach. It was pleasant in every way. Grace wanted a Tillamook t-shirt, but I encouraged her to avoid fixating on such transitory things when at any moment a tsunami could carry us all away to our watery graves.

Bringing the Sass. (Garibaldi, Oregon; May 2017)

The unschooled Oregon coast traveler may believe that there is little of interest between Tillamook and Cannon Beach. But that is incorrect, and you'll never be on Jeopardy! or get a job or find a life partner if you think that. In fact, Highway 101 between Tillamook and Cannon Beach is home to Rockaway Beach and Nehalem, both of which locations have been memorialized in song. Although the Ramones allegedly wrote "Rockaway Beach" about a beach in Queens, not in Oregon -- according to all known primary and secondary source material -- that doesn't stop me from believing that the song is actually about Rockaway Beach, Oregon, and that the Ramones are actually my uncles on my father's side.

"Nehalem" comes from Everclear's breakout album, Sparkle and Fade, and is only mildly interesting. Moreover, it may be a factually incorrect song, as the lyrics say, "They say you're leaving Nehalem," which implies that people actually live in Nehalem, which is doubtful if you've ever driven through. While we passed through Nehalem, I offended Grace by making fun of her fear of tsunamis in a Japanese accent, which I concede is both culturally insensitive and bad parenting. I take full responsibility for my errant actions and resolve to be a better example to my fans, and also to invent an app that prevents earwax buildup.

"Tah-dah!" (Cannon Beach, Oregon; May 2017)

Cannon Beach is a slower-paced beach town for a slightly more mature crowd. Sometimes my parents go there with their dog, and I've heard my mom complain about the town's complete lack of a dog-friendly skating rink that projects music videos from 1983-1986 on a large white sheet hanging at one end of the skating floor, and that scatters bacon bits on the floor for the canines to enjoy. Neither me nor my children know how to roller skate, so we just went for a walk on the beach, and there was a set of tidal pools with volunteer marine life specialists standing there explaining things to people as they checked out the marine life. And I thought, "America is amazing. Where else would you find earnest young college students standing in the ocean in waders, instructing ADD kids on the stages of sea anemone battles?" All those "America-is-in-its-death-throes" doom prophets need to go to Cannon Beach and touch some anemones and talk to the girls in waders and then they'll think twice about moving to Canada, where they don't even have enough Wal-Marts.

We Cool, We Cool (or, "The Truth Behind Earth's Defenses Against Alien Invasion")

I am in the United States now. Great country. If you haven't been, you should go. Legally. First thing you should know before going to the US is: Americans always obey the law. Unless they're rich. Rich people can do pretty much whatever they want. So, it's generally a good idea to be wealthy, but if you can't, the next best thing is to at least pretend.

Born! In the USA! Except Grace wasn't (sad face). (Pacific City, Oregon; May 2017)

What works for me is to walk around in crowded places and drop a one dollar bill on the ground, and then look at it lying there and say really loudly, "NBD! Not worth my time to pick that up! I have many, many more of those in my wallet!" Then, everyone around me thinks, "Holy, that guy must be quite well-off," and they just stop and respect me. And then, later, after they've followed me around until I'm alone, they mug me. But, you know, you can't really complain, because you've just got to let the market system work. 

This shady dude and his shady sister were aimlessly riding the metro late one night. I tried to steer clear. You never know when someone like this might just come and snuggle you. (Washington, DC; May 2017)

When you live outside the United States like I do, you recognize even more what a kick-butt country the US is when you come home. Because we have baseball here. Studies show that baseball makes people bigger, faster, stronger, and able to inject themselves with syringes more accurately. But, really, baseball is awesome. One of the first things I did after landing back in the US after two years overseas was take my kids to a baseball game, Washington Nationals, vs. Arizona Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks tried to ruin the game by wearing their uniforms, which are the ugliest uniforms in all of space and time, but which, unbeknownst to most casual observers, actually protect Earth from alien invasions, on account that aliens' genetic makeup is disrupted by the waves of sheer atrociousness generated by the Diamondbacks' inhuman team colors. Aliens therefore disintegrate before reaching Earth, but their organic remains do fall through the atmosphere, and airlines discretely use this material to create "fish" meals. Which cost $20. 

Jayson Werth's overwhelming awesomeness singlehandedly protected all the players and fans from the destructive power of the Diamondbacks' horrible uniforms (Washington, DC; May 2017)

Another thing the United States has that other countries do not is Oregon. It's a secret well-kept from foreigners that Oregon actually exists. When I'm overseas, and somebody asks where I'm from, I say, "I'm from the West Coast of the United States!" And then they say, "Cool! I've totally been to California!" And at that point I want to punch them in the forehead, because there are in fact two other fine states comprising the West Coast of the United States, but I usually just keep with the chillax'ed, laid-back vibe in which we Oregonians pride ourselves, and I just say, "We cool, we cool," with an open-minded head bob that demonstrates my tolerance for ignorance. Also, the forehead is a really dumb place to punch someone.

Ahhhhhh. (Manzanita, Oregon; May 2017)

Innocent Again

Sometimes in the morning when it's still dark, I run with a little headlamp in a big circle on the dirt trails through a black, pretty park. That time of night, it's that kind of prettiness that you can't see, the kind you sense with your nose and your skin and your guts. The night bugs are invisible and crazy, whirring and banging on the air. There are birds in the dirty black beside the trail, maybe owls, maybe tiny winged satans, I don't know because all I see are their round reflector eyes. Perfectly still as I pad closer, then the eyes silently rise on wings I can't see and swoop past me quiet as a little curse. And it's that they fly without bodies or even souls that makes them beautiful somehow, like the wonder is in all the things that I have to guess at, all the things I don't know for sure.

An old train dropped us on the outskirts of Damascus almost fifteen years ago. A bunch of bags and a baby on a curb in Syria, a handful of Arabic words in our throats, and the absolute unknown coming down all over us. The sky was blue forever. The blue of being a long way from home. I looked at Shannon, she was watching for a cab, the baby on her hip. And we didn't know a single thing, about Syria, about how big the sky is, about ourselves, about anything. Maybe I've never felt so powerful and small and stupid.

Sweet innocence. (Reston, VA; Oct 2005)

But the Syrian sky changed colors as the months went by, from that strange, unsettling blue to hometown blue, the blue that hung outside my bedroom window as a kid, the blue that has its arm around you when you're little and scared. Foreign to familiar. And isn't that how we go? Each day you just creep another bit into the big, black, beautiful darkness until another tiny circle around you brightens from darkness to light, and you see a little more, and you know a little more. And then it's time to move again -- literally or figuratively, it doesn't matter. You're back in the dark, and you have to stare so hard until it takes shape and starts to look like home. Then you go yet again, because if you don't you'll die from the light, from all the knowing.

Young know-nothings. (Basra, Syria; Oct 2003)

The Salvadoran mornings blaze with birdsong. They are vivid and alive. I opened my eyes and ears this morning in my bed at dawn and tried to hear it and see it like I did two years ago, when it was all new. But in a lot of ways, now I know too much. The uncertainty, the darkness, the wonder of it all, has settled down into light. Familiar, ho-hum light. Sometimes it gets too bright, and that's how you know you're on the edge of that big, black, beautiful darkness again, and it's time to step inside where you're blind, and small and stupid and overflowing with spirit. I guess there's rashness in that, but there's faith in the rashness, and curiosity in the faith, and hope in the curiosity, and hope is the bone and marrow of being alive.

I suppose I know less now than I used to, in the sense that I've lived too long to think I know too much. And maybe that's a virtue. Not that ignorance is a virtue, but innocence is. And the most ambitious among us are all trying to crawl our way back into innocence, or at least some imitation of it, which is all you can hope for once you've lost the real thing. An imitation where you've seen things, you know things, but you've seen enough and learned enough to know that you're small and stupid -- and thereby bordering on sage.

Boarding for first El Salvador flight. Back when we were in the dark. (Miami, FL; Apr 2015)

We fly permanently away from El Salvador in only another day or two. I ran my last big circle in the darkness through the black, pretty park the other day. I've run the big circle so many times, I can do it in the dark, so I flipped off my headlamp. That old dawn was way off in the east, picking at the edge of the sky, but the air was still heavy and velvet and black. The crazy night bugs clamored and my blind feet found all the spots between the rocks and the roots, sure as high noon, throwing their own light that I guess only they can see. And I thought, I know too much now, I could die from all this light here in the darkness. And I ran on through the night, ready to be blind again, small and stupid again, innocent again.

On Long, Lonely Beaches and the Paradox of Redemption

With only a couple weeks left in El Salvador, we hit the beach for the last time last week. Two years ago, as we prepared to move to this land of long, lonely beaches, I looked forward to getting myself a surfboard, throwing some racks on my minivan, and becoming a regular gremmie. Didn't happen -- I start work at 7:30 am, a solid hour or two before the embassy surfer dudes have to roll in for work, which put before-work surf practice out of reach for me. So we didn't have as much beach time as I thought we would, which frankly turned out okay, since we got to really branch out and see and do a lot more beyond the beach.

Team Captain Savannah.

Still, there's something elemental and vast about the ocean. When I stand on the shore, on the precipice of blue endlessness, I'm kind of content to just be there, tiny, insignificant, a mite toeing the tightrope between the deep, shuddering earth and the fathomless, overwhelming sea.

Grace after having her knees slashed by the mud ninja.

I remember a long ago autumn day in Tartous, a Syrian town lapping up against the Mediterranean Sea. I sat on a rock on the beach in the shadow of a coastal Crusader castle and listened to the metronomic tide, heedlessly hurling itself at the stones. Eternity behind every breaker. The ocean smashed out its infinite rhythm, and I thought how the creaky old Crusaders themselves had heard the same mystic water land upon the same sand and stone, and I don't know that I've ever felt more suspended in time. Small before the absolute sea.

Note the high-quality boogie board we employ, which needs no other name apart from "Boogie Board."

There were no weighty moments earlier this week as I watched my children and their friends scamper over the black sand. But it's still hard for me not to have the sensation of being little more than a blip beside the big blue water. Transient, like I'm dissolving back to dust before the constant sea. It was here long before my kids' feet splashed into the very tips of its watery toenails, and it will be here long after we've gone away, to wherever we go when we go away.

Not to spoil the moment, but Shannon doesn't actually like to boogie board. She's only holding that board because the children got bored of it, pun intended.

I guess that's what I think about when I'm on the shore, feet in wet sand, eyes and brain counting and recounting my children, making sure the unblinking blue universe that dwarfs the horizon and the worlds dancing above it doesn't unwittingly claim one of my kids. We may be finite, but why truncate the mere eye-blink of mortality we're allotted, right?

Things got a little slow for these two. "Sooooo......"

So farewell to the long, lonely beaches of El Salvador. Where the moon pulls blanket after blanket after blanket of sea up and over stone and sand, then lets it roll back home to the bottomless ocean.

And perhaps so we go as well, lifted from the comfort of an eternal sea by a benevolent Moon. Pulled through the air, we crash to earth in a paroxysm of mother, blood, and water, then slide irresistibly back home. Given up, then reclaimed. The paradox of redemption. Old as the tide. 

Violet notices me for the first time all day.