48 Hours in Antigua, Guatemala (And the World's Your Oyster)

I am not a superfan of Antigua, Guatemala. Which doesn't mean I don't like it. I'm also not a superfan of hairless cats, but they're ok, you know? I am, however, a superfan of turkey bacon, which marks a significant evolution in my thinking. That said, I am most assuredly not even a normal fan of Happy Cat cat food, which I tried once on a dare when I was seven, and which caused my tongue to fall out. That's why I talk funny now and am a bad kisser.

Selfie sticks in the wrong hands can lead to scenes like this. (Antigua, Guatemala; Feb 2017)

Antigua is a good place to go if you want to visit Latin America but you want to be around as many obnoxious gringos as possible, but you have a rare genetic disorder that makes your skin fall off in hot and humid weather, so you can't go to Cancun.

Shannon gave me leave to take a long weekend with friends in Antigua, so long as I look into tongue transplants next time we're in the U.S. It turned out that I enjoyed Antigua a lot more with friends than I did last time, when I went with my family. Not because my family isn't awesome, because they are, but because when we family vacation, kicking it in a cafe or people watching are NOT options. Shannon gets twitchy after about 10 minutes of sitting still in a restaurant while on vacation and also starts demanding to know how many Cokes I have drunk so far today and talking about how we need to hike something NOW, and I can hear her muttering under her breath about the potential fitness quotient of hiking up and down the McDonald's Play Place slide.

So, the Abu Halen & Friends Caravan rolled into Antigua on a Saturday afternoon. Jimmy found us a sweet house on the edge of town, which came with a lion-sized golden retriever named Barack, which offended me because I feel like dogs shouldn't be politicized. Also, the golden retriever raised for me the obvious question of whether President Obama was in fact even born a human. Can he produce a certificate proving he is not a dog?

This picture makes me uncomfortable, so I am sharing it with you. (Antigua, Guatemala; Feb 2017)

Antigua is a nice place to be if you like walking and eating. I like both of those things. I recommend That One Cafe, the Name of Which Escapes Me at the Moment. While placing my side order of bacon, I mistakenly asked for "tres porciones" of bacon, which to my stupid gringo brain meant "three strips" of bacon, but which in actual Spanish means "three orders" of bacon. When the waitress brought me my ample main dish of French toast, along with a large plate heaped with crackling bacon, I realized my error and endured the well-earned mockery of the rest of the table. I meekly explained my gringo error to the waitress, who laughed and took back my order, thus saving me from paying approximately $20 for something like 42 strips of bacon. That's why I recommend That One Cafe, the Name of Which Escapes Me at the Moment.

Another fun place to eat is That Faux Texas Barbecue Joint That Plays Electric Americana Music. Note that the hamburgers do not fit in human mouths, but possibly might fit in the cargo hold of a C-130, but you probably won't be able to get the door shut with the hamburger inside.

I was bored of pictures of Antigua's iconic arch, so here's what was going on under the arch. Pointing is rude, lady! (Antigua, Guatemala; Feb 2017)

A bad place to eat is That Hip Mediterranean Place With Hummus, because I think the owner is snotty and hates kids and I want to punch him in the clavicle, or maybe nunchuck him in the clavicle because punching him there would really hurt my knuckles. When we arrived at That Hip Mediterranean Place With Hummus, I was carrying a kid who is not my own (with permission from the actual parent, because I have proved my ability to not drop children by not dropping my own very much over the past 15 years), and the restaurant was pretty crowded. It looked like there wasn't room for us, which was understandable. But I asked the owner behind the counter anyway, I said, "Hey, how many seats do you have available?" And he said, "None, we're full." And I looked down at the empty three chairs at the bar, and I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I looked back at the three empty chairs, and I looked back at him, and I said, "You have zero chairs available?" And he said, "Yes, we have zero chairs available." And I said, while looking at the three empty chairs that sat less than two feet from me and less than two feet from him, "You have zero chairs available." And he said, "That's right, zero chairs." I am certain that he doesn't like kids, or guys without tongues. Maybe both, he's such a bigot.

If you're ever in Antigua, you should visit Cerro de la Cruz, a hill on the edge of town with a big cross on it. I took a tuk-tuk up there on Sunday afternoon, with two other adults and two children. I bet you thought that three adults and two children couldn't fit in the back seat of a tuk-tuk, but you're wrong and the weakness of your intellect is why you didn't invent prosthetic tongues. The road to Cerro de la Cruz is very steep, so at several points the tuk-tuk driver made me get out and walk, apparently because I'm fat. I felt like that was the unspoken understanding between us. And that's why I want to punch the tuk-tuk driver in the tibia, which would probably require me to pretend like I'm tying my shoe so that I would have a clear shot. I think I could do it, because I'm good at pretending to tie my shoe, thanks to my tiger mom who wouldn't let me watch Hee-Haw without my shoes tied, but who was lackluster at actually checking to see if they were tied.

Creeping on Antigua and Volcan Agua through the trees from Cerro de la Cruz. (Antigua, Guatemala; Feb 2017)

There were a lot of people and dust up by the big cross on Sunday afternoon, and a thick haze from nearby burning sugarcane fields obscured the view. So the next morning me and Brent walked back up, and there were only two gringa ladies up there doing yoga. We explained that we worked at a U.S. embassy and we had the day off for President's Day, to which one of the ladies expressed dismay that we would celebrate the current U.S. president. Me and Brent cast sideways glances at one another, and then proceed to explain that President's Day is, in fact, not a celebration of the incumbent president at any given time, but is actually a celebration of the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom were born in February. The yoga ladies were mildly pacified by this explanation.

I hope you enjoyed my review of Antigua, Guatemala, which is what New York Times travel section stories would be written like if the New York Times had awesome travel writers like Abu Halen. But, sorry, tough luck, New York Times, Abu Halen is already gainfully employed, at least until the do-nothing State Department is eliminated. Then, maybe, Abu Halen will permit you to pay him to travel to exotic places, forget basic details about the trip, and mostly just write nonsense about himself.

In Which I Touch On Father-Daughter Time and the Relationship Between the French Revolution and ZZ Top

Me and Savannah went for a walk right before dinner a few weeks ago. We both took our cameras. It was a photography outing, like a safari, except without a jeep and mainly just taking place on our street instead of in Africa. So, not very much like a safari, I guess.

Savannah got a DSLR camera for her birthday. She didn't necessarily say she wanted one. I just knew via fatherly intuition, the kind of fatherly intuition dads have when they're trying to push their own hobbies on their kids so that father-child "special time" is actually mildly interesting, which I frankly think I've earned after sitting on the floor and getting a sore back and making whinnying sounds for like 15 years in efforts to "get close to my kids." 

So, to encourage Savannah's photographic artistry, I got home from work and suggested a quick tromp outside to take some artsy pictures of stupid things, like cracks in the sidewalk and asphalt smudges and exposed wires and piles of dog poo. You know, things that Jackson Pollock would paint.

One cool thing on our walk was this palm frond. I took a lot of pictures of it. It reminded me of the way we used to comb our hair in the 1990s, like when you used to part it right down the middle, right after you colored it with Kool-Aid. I don't think Savannah understood my fascination with this 1990s palm frond, which is understandable. Not very many people understand my level of genius, maybe just tree sloths and garden hoes, and that's about it. 

I also spent a solid 10 minutes photographing this garage door, which I think further alarmed Savannah, and possibly made the residents of this house, who were probably watching me via their closed-circuit video camera, consider calling out the police, or at least the elementary school archery team. The neat thing about the garage door -- besides the fact that it opens and closes all on its own, all you have to do is push a button -- is that it's ugly brown all day long, but for a few minutes just before dusk it turns this wonderful color that I call "color-that-I-like-but-cannot-describe," which is distantly related to the way I feel about ZZ Top, whose music I like though I can't tell you quite why, at least without using the words "beard" and "legs."

After our 15 minute photography walk, which, to be honest with you, involved me taking photos and Savannah standing around asking me a lot of questions about the French Revolution (which I absently answered using mainly ZZ Top lyrics, i.e. "Why did they execute all the elites?" "Well honey, they were bad and they were nationwide"), we went inside and had hot dogs. Sometimes you just have to make that father-daughter bonding time happen, you know?

So They Can Bask in My Mirth (or, "'Why Babies Are Born Premature' for $200, Alex")

January is a big month for our family. Because it has 31 days. March and October are also big months for our family, because they also have 31 days. June and September, on the other hand, are smaller months for our family. Probably for your family as well, I assume.

Another reason that January is a big month for our family is because both Shannon and Savannah have birthdays in January. And as it happened, their birthdays fall on the same day. Unbeknownst to most people, the reason they share a birthday is because I'm a super, super funny person. Maybe the funniest person in my living room right now, if you don't count the other people in my living room right now. Here's how it went down: Savannah wasn't due for three or four more weeks, and we were driving on the night before Shannon's birthday, and I told a reeeeeally funny joke, and Shannon was laughing, and then her water broke. And then Savannah was born a few hours later. I'm so funny I make babies come into the world early so they can bask in my mirth. 

Here are some pictures of Savannah's birthday party, which Shannon selflessly planned and carried out, despite the fact that it was her birthday too. Shannon's theory is that if she pretends it's not her birthday, she won't actually age. This has worked for the past 15 years, and none of us want to jinx it by actually saying "happy birthday" out loud to her. So that's what's really happening: we're not actually forgetting it's her birthday, we're just helping her not age.

Shannon organized a water balloon toss with towels. This kid is having the greatest moment in his forever and ever. Someday, on his wedding day, his wife will look into his smiling face and ask what he's thinking of, and he'll say, "Man, when that water balloon exploded on my head... I just wish I could go back in time, you know?"

Shannon brought pizza for everyone! That's why she's the best human in the universe! Savannah isn't completely sure of that, but she'll come around.

I had one job -- one job! -- and that was to take a picture of the birthday girl when she wasn't nom nom nom'ing on pizza. And I couldn't pull it off.

This sad, lonely guy wasn't invited to the party. It looks like he's launching a jump shot, but really he's throwing his hands up in the air in resignation, realizing that he'll probably never stop crying.

"And the kids partied until the going down of the sun, and the coming on of the great neon lights across the street at Burger King." (3 Kings 21:6)

Here's Shannon, feeling satisfied with herself at the end of the day, that her birthday came and went -- again -- and she didn't age -- again.

Each Time You Curse at Girls, You Curse a Little at Yourself

A little while ago, I saw a couple of people on the world wide webz posting lists of super influential music albums. I read the lists and silently judged my friends for liking dumb music, because that's what music-lovers do to one another. 

"You're favorite song is also the Tetris theme-song?"

I'm nothing if not a follower, and I also can't keep my word count down when I write, so I thought I'd do my list over here on my blog where I can be as verbose as I want. I actually put kind of a pathetic amount of thought into this, because music is one of the few things in life about which I mean business -- so you're not getting a list of albums I like, but rather albums that I feel like really influenced me during my teenage years. And I even put the list in order, because I'm all about order, by which I mean other people doing what I say. And I also added commentary, because I'm all about commentary, by which I mean me talking and other people passively listening and admiring me.

10. Forever Blue, Chris Isaak. I realize I'm kind of setting things up like this is a joke by putting a Chris Isaak album on my list, but I'm being serious here. Forever Blue had a really cool, throwback, retro aesthetic to it, and I had a thing for Chris Isaak's hair. I also liked how it felt like Isaak had a time machine that sucked melodies and lyrics (and his hair, for that matter) out of the 1960s and then spit them out in the 90s. Also, his guitar had his name spelled in masking tape on it. That's influential, man.

9. Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big & Buzzy, the Refreshments. The Refreshments were philosophers ("Cars break down and people break down and other things break down too.") They spun poignant tales of barroom friendships ("Barkeep, another Mekong, please... one for me and what's-his-name, my new best friend.") And they were okay admitting that they were lame ("Baby I was never cool enough to get a job at a record store."). The tone of Paul Naffah's guitar never changed, from track one to track twelve -- it didn't need to, because there was this otherworldly mix of dust and lightning and sun flare in every note. I can still hum all the riffs.

8. Zooropa, U2. Everybody loved Achtung Baby, except Saddam Hussein. I did too, but I think Zooropa had a bigger impact on me. "Zooropa" was soaring and mournful, and allowed me to stump Herr Slawson, my German teacher, who couldn't translate "vorsprung durch technik" for me. The bells on "Babyface" were all weird and dissonant. The percussion on "Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car" sounded like somebody was smacking you in the head with a vorsprung. It was all so disjointed and unsettled, with fleeting sunbreaks of crystalline U2-isms (like the sunny meadow of a refrain in the middle of "Lemon," in which Bono reminds us "Midnight is where the day begins"). Some of it worked, some of it didn't (like Johnny Cash on "The Wanderer"), but it felt fearless and uncertain at the same time, like you were boldly arcing into a future that freaked you out.

7. Pieces of You, Jewel. I thought it was super cool that Jewel lived in her VW Bus. And I thought it was super cool that she mixed poetry and guitar -- look, I know Dylan did it 30 years earlier blah blah blah. The difference is that Dylan sounded like a dying seagull when he sang and Jewel sounded like angels with wings. Super hot angels with wings. I would've followed her on Twitter if there was Twitter then. And printed out her tweets and stuck them to my bedroom wall. I learned how to play all the songs on this album, and then I sang them and made people who heard me wish they could stab their ears with the rusty coils of a broken kitchen whisk.

6. Wildflowers, Tom Petty. Fact: Tom Petty wrote the simplest songs ever. Fact: Tom Petty made them sound like auditory masterpieces. When I heard "Wildflowers" -- "you belong somewhere you feel free," -- I was like, "That's it, I'm going to live in the woods and eat pine sap." "Time to Move On" is like two chords, but there is meaning there that I still can't grasp: "Broken skyline, moving through the airport..." What does that MEAN? If I could just grasp it I would be able to control all quantum things. Wildflowers sounded like a warm fire in a wood stove, immediate and comforting, crackling with deceptively simple genius. 

5. Fountains of Wayne, Fountains of Wayne. I learned two things from this album. First, there is such thing as irresistible pop. Second, if you write irresistible pop songs, even the stupidest phrases become absolutely unforgettable. FOW turned throwaway lines like, "If the DJ isn't humming, a part of me suffers too," and "Don't you wanna ride in my survival car?" and "Each time you curse at girls you curse a little at yourself" and "For a small girl, Barbara sure has got a big crush," into sonic moments you can't ever forget. It was a fun and fast album, and when I learned to play "Leave the Biker" chicks always dug the line "I wonder if he ever has cried 'cause his kitten got run over and died." So there was that.

4. The Very Best of Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Elvis Costello & the Attractions. Costello is my favorite little be-spectacled man. I can't remember how I ended up with this album, but it blew my mind. When Elvis said, "When you're drinking down the eau de cologne, and you're spitting out the Kodachrome," I swear I learned more in two lines than I did in the whole eighth grade. And then there was "Beyond Belief," with a birdshot melody that's so weird and yet so unforgettable, with lines like, "I hang around dying to be tortured, you'll never be alone in the bone orchard." I felt like there was awesome sauce leaking out of every phrase, every consonant jab, every ridiculously clever rhyme. I confirmed that I was one of only two adolescents in the greater Portland area listening to my man Costello when me and Thomas went one of his concerts, and everyone there was at least 45 years old and wearing polo shirts and old-lady colored makeup. 

3. Empire, Queensrÿche. This was a big one. When I was 11, I was standing in the music section of Fred Meyer's with the Empire cassette in one hand and Metallica's black album cassette in the other. I could only choose one, because my mom was cheap. I bought Empire because it had a picture on the cover, and the Metallica album was just boring black, except I was near-sided and couldn't see that killer snake in the corner. Queensrÿche ended up changing everything for me, in a way that Metallica probably wouldn't have. Empire was tuneful and intelligent, but still muscular. I'm not saying Metallica are dummies, just that they're kind of dummies. After that afternoon at Fred Meyer's, I left Elton John and Bryan Adams behind, which I later repented of because Elton John writes melodies in his sleep second only to Neil Diamond's, and Bryan Adams songs can help you get chicks, according to popular lore.

2. IV, Led Zeppelin. When Robert Plant said, "Hey hey mama," I was like, "I am not moving from this spot until this album is over." I did get kind of bored by about "Four Sticks," though. Five songs sitting in one place is still a solid effort for a 12 year old. Zeppelin opened my door to classic rock, and I think I went a whole year without listening to anything that wasn't recorded pre-1980. I can't figure out why my kids aren't as awesome as I was. They only want to listen to dubstep, and that's why they will fail at life.

1. Recovering the Satellites, Counting Crows. I realize this is a pretty big let down for probably just about anyone who bothered to scroll all the way down here. Doesn't matter. I (heart) Counting Crows, and this album came out at just the right time to resonate absolutely and completely and entirely with my 17 year-old self. Adam Duritz was a pretty melodramatic, whiny dude, but his lyrical style completely smote me and changed the way I think about how words make images: "Moonlight creeping 'round the corner of our lawns/when we see the early signs of daylight fading, we leave just before it's gone." Swoon. "I say my prayers, then I just light myself on fire." Swoon. "Mother watches as her baby drifts violently away." Swoon. I still can't hear anything from this album without getting all the feels. Recovering the Satellites is still my adolescence in musical form.

And that's it! Done! As a bonus, here's a list of my kids' favorite albums:

10. What's an album? 
9. This song has been on for 20 seconds. I'm bored of it. Next song.
8. Song that sounds like it's from a 1985 Nintendo game.
7. A lot of songs in a row that are stupid.
6. Song with a lot of computer noises.
5. Song by tone-deaf people, so, auto-tune.
4. A lot of songs in a row that suck so bad they're causing a disturbance in the space-time continuum.
3. Songs by people who can't play any instruments or sing, so a bot is singing the songs.
2. Minecraft theme song on repeat.
1. Anything by Coldplay.

 

A Bad Day in Belize Is Better Than a Good Day in Bakersfield

I've never actually been to Bakersfield, so wisdom might dictate that I shouldn't make sweeping statements about whether days in Bakersfield are good or bad. But wisdom wouldn't dare dictate anything to me again, not after last time when it tried to get me to "stop riding the Ripstik down the stairs," and in response I tore out its larynx with my bare hands and ate it with Cool Whip.

"Tah-dah!" Taken before she realized that both mosquitos and sharks want her dead. (Caye Ambergris, Belize; Nov 2016)

It's pretty awesome that I'm only just now getting around to telling a story about when I was in Belize. I was in Belize like 2 months ago, but my life is so full and whole and meaningful and uncontrollably jam-packed with incredible selfie opportunities -- which I forgo because I don't want the whole world to leap into oncoming traffic after realizing the hopelessness of trying to have as great a life as me -- that I haven't really had time to relate any Belize stories.

But here's one: after we arrived on a Belizean island and pulled up to our rental home beside the ocean, it started to rain. It rained all day, and the wind howled, and lightning flashed and thunder crashed for good measure. It was kind of cold, down in the 70s. My kids were like, "This is ridiculous. We only go swimming when its 88 with light to moderate winds, preferably out of the southeast." So they sat inside watching Little Giants on satellite TV, because for some reason channel 412 kept playing it on repeat.

By lunchtime I had had enough. "I am going to town for lunch!" I declared. "Do any of you losers want to come?" Shannon suggested we just have PB&J for lunch, because that would be "cheaper" and "dryer." But she conveniently failed to mention that it would be "lamer than tying and untying and then re-tying one's shoes over and over." I flatly refused. "Never! I drove for 14 hours and then sat on a boat for 2 more hours so I could hang out on this stupid island! I am going to town for lunch! I am not going to watch Little Giants any longer! Although I did rather enjoy the part where Rick Moranis falls off the porch when he sees that one hot lady!"

As I was about to head out alone into the horizontal rain, the most unlikely family member piped up. "Wait! Dad! I'll come!" Savannah is nearly 14 years old, and she dislikes going outside and having leprosy about the same. But here she was, volunteering to ride for forty-five minutes through the rain on a golf cart over bumpy, muddy dirt roads. Because all we had was a golf cart and there was no pavement on our end of the island.

So off we went. We were soaked within a couple minutes because, if you've never seen a golf cart, they don't really protect you from anything except for going more than like 4 mph. I was in a hurry because I was hungry and also because I was worried about running out of things to talk about with a 14 year old, so I really floored it. But after bopping and rollicking down the road and splashing heavily through immense mud bogs for about 5 minutes, the golf cart quit. "My bad," I said to Savannah, because most things are my bad, including the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon; unbeknownst to most casual observers, I ate the last known Passenger Pigeon in 1993, believing it was an ugly pheasant. 

Southern San Pedro from the water taxi (Caye Ambergris, Belize; Nov 2016)

We gamely looked underneath the seat at the motor to see if the problem was something obvious, like a wild boar stuck in the drive shaft. But it wasn't. So me and Savannah stood ankle-deep in a mud bog in the rain, looking at the motor, wishing there were a squealing boar in there. You know, just doing some father-daughter bonding.

Pretty soon a local drove by on his golf cart and politely stopped to help. He said he owns a dredging company, which is kind of a lame thing to own, unlike sunflower seeds, which is a neat thing to own. The guy poked around the motor a little bit before declaring that the problem was that the spark plug was quite wet, at which point he asked me if I had been driving sufficiently slowly through the mud puddles. I denied doing anything so feminine as driving a golf cart slowly, and the local said that's probably why we were stalled in the mud in a tropical downpour. "My bad," I said.

After walking through mud and rain for 45 minutes to find a phone, calling a repairman, and getting a new spark plug installed in our cart, me and Savannah finally reached town, about 2.5 hours after leaving the house. We ate in an ice box of a restaurant where an old guy in a sombrero, who was already slightly drunk despite the hour being only 4 pm, was making passes at a couple of overweight women crammed into children's-sized shorts and what I believe were ace bandages that the women had mistaken for halter tops. To keep our minds off the mutant romance blossoming at the bar, me and Savannah discussed the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916. "So why did the shark keep attacking people?" Savannah wanted to know. "Because sharks can think of only one thing, day and night, every moment of their lives, and that is the succulence of human blood," I answered, before adding, "Let's go snorkeling tomorrow."

Because the southern end of the island where our house was located is mostly just one big bog, especially after the rain, on the way home in the golf cart mosquitos completely ate us. Nom nom nom. We died, but were reincarnated immediately as ourselves, which I think somewhat disappointed us both. I can't speak for Savannah, but I was hoping to be Sid Vicious next time around. All in all, the bad day was a lot of fun. I feel like Savannah will want to do a lot of other things with me as she gets older. Clearly, I am the creator of good bad days. 

Our house was about 5 miles from town, over roads that looked like this. (Caye Ambergris, Belize; Nov 2016)

A Muted Mosh Pit in the Sky

Every once in awhile, a small cloud of little birds appears in the dusky heavens above our house. They dart and dive and dodge, zigzagging so violently, so quietly. It's like a muted mosh pit in the sky. 

Antiguo Cuscatlan, El Salvador; Jan 2017

I like to watch the swallows overhead. Last night they came, and I took a couple hundred pictures, hoping for a frame full of silhouetted birds around the crescent moon. But the only decent photo of the 202 I snapped was this one of a single little bird in flight seemingly sailing through the smoldering dusk toward the milky moon.

As a group in motion, the birds careen and spiral, dancing like I imagine electrons do -- all random, jerky movements with a profound lack of order and design. But the single swallow arrested in time is a thing of grace and purpose that, for all the kaleidoscopic movement of the collective, we might confuse with caprice. Maybe order and design just hides in between the tick and the tock.

Cannonballing Into the Future (or, "Learning How to See")

I was an all-night janitor one summer in Portland, Oregon; 8:30 pm to 4:30 am, four nights per week. It wasn't so bad. I made sweet money, $8.35/hour, I think, which doesn't seem like much, but I was living in my parents' garage, so it covered the essentials, like N64 games. You know, as I put this down in writing it's becoming clear that there have been periods in my life where I have really been quite a loser.

I call this piece, "The Nature of Grandmotherhood." (Joya del Pacifico, El Salvador; Dec 2016)

The sun rises early in the summer in the Pacific Northwest, and every morning I'd drive home on the empty freeway in my 1980 Honda Accord while the world slowly lit up. It was right when Coldplay had put out their first album, which was actually pretty good, and the words to one of the songs on the album went, "We live in a beautiful world," and I had it on the CD player, cool dawn air whipping through the open car windows and through my hair, and the city was still, and the sky was pale indigo, and it felt like I was going somewhere, even though I lived in a garage and ate PopTarts for two-thirds of my meals.

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I've always loved photographs. When I was a kid we had a bunch of old National Geographic magazines, and I devoured every single one with my eyes. Never read a single word of a single article. I'd just pore over page after page, soaking in every detail of every picture. Travel magazines, sports magazines, newspapers -- I loved the pictures, the colors, the angles, the sharpness, the way the world froze for an split second and you could just stare at it forever, and it wouldn't change.

About a decade ago, I finally bought a decent camera, thought I'd try my hand at my favorite art form. Since then, I've taken more than a hundred thousand photographs. A few are okay; most are pretty pedestrian. But the beautiful byproduct of snapping all those photos has been learning how to notice the instant of feeling that flashes across the human face, how to spot shape and color and light and shadow, the profundity of the quotidian. I’m slowly teaching myself how to see.

I still think we live in a beautiful world, like the one that used to blow through my car window and across my skin on all those pastel mornings years ago. There are ugly things in this world too, of course, horrendous things, even. Watching for the good isn’t the same as burying one’s head and pretending there’s no such thing as bad. Levelheaded engagement with humanity and its ills is probably a good, responsible idea. But maybe it ought to coexist with a wide-eyed, enthusiastic engagement with the wonder of humanity, with the exquisiteness of the seemingly mundane. Because that wonder is happening all the time. You just have to watch for it.

As for me, I intend to keep my camera a little closer this year, to pay better attention while the beautiful world goes around, to notice while life and light happen.

I also note that this ugly and clunky blog celebrated its 10th birthday last week. I love this blog like I love Roxette -- they are both so dumb that they are incredible. I don't foresee abandoning Abu Halen anytime soon in favor of some other, more modern platform for sharing. I hope you don't mind having to type in a URL or pause in the middle of your Facebook scrolling to click on a link and wait 3.5 seconds for the blog to load -- I know your time is valuable. Happy New Year to all 24 of you. 

We Are Moving to India (And Other Things I Never Thought I'd Say)

My family and I will move to India in about six months. If you had asked me six months ago about India, I would've told you "I wouldn't touch India with a 10-foot pole." And then I would've slapped you and said, "Don't ever talk that way again." Then you would've justifiably stomped away mad, then I would've critically analyzed my behavior, then I would've found you crying behind your dresser and I would've said sorry and we would've made up, but without kissing, because of marriage vows and communicable diseases.

"India? Are you messing with me?"

But, over the summer as I examined my options for my next assignment after El Salvador, I started to rethink India a little. There was a solid job at my rank at the embassy in New Delhi, the school there is top-notch, and I've always wanted to ask a real Indian why you pronounce "caste" as "cast." And if I did, and if the real Indian were to slap me and say, "Don't ever talk that way again," I would chuckle at the irony, from behind my dresser, while crying.

So, strange as it seems, India went from being something on roughly the same level of desirability as the Grinch to being one of my top choices for my follow-on assignment. We're all super excited to experience it all, the color and the motion and smells and the air and the dysentery. Bring it on!

And that's one of the things I love most about my job: it's always pushing me outside my comfort zone, forcing me to revisit my assumptions, twisting my brain to ensure that I'm seeing the world more fairly -- and myself more honestly.

I'm not a person who naturally likes change. I wasn't born an explorer. To get to my childhood neighborhood you took Mt. Hood Street up the hill, away from town. The square little post-World War II houses gradually thinned out, then you took a right at Mrs. Goodwin's house, the one painted red and white like a candy cane.

If you didn't turn right, Mt. Hood Street just kept on going, winding into the hills. I didn't know where it went, and I never really wondered. I was pretty content in my little neighborhood. Four streets nestled in a crook in the hills. Our clump of houses was called Erickson's Addition. I still don't know who Erickson is, or what we were an addition to. It just didn't matter to me very much. I had my bike and the creek and Curtis and Greg and Jeff and Jimmy, and Stacy too, who was kind of cute, and that was enough.

Maybe I changed as I realized that time flows like a river and we're swept along. And everything is fleeting. The towering tree I'd watch as a kid from our living room window, the way it waved and glittered and scattered golden summer sunshine like dust. They cut it down one day, maybe for the gold, I don't know. And Curtis and Greg and Jeff and Jimmy and Stacy, I don't know where they went, but I know they're gone, or at least the way I remember them is gone. And my own children, tiny voices and teeth and hair that's always soft, the river is taking them away too.

But it's okay. You can't dam the river to stop the erosion of youth. But somewhere along the line I figured out you get to decide where you're swept to, what you see and what you learn along the way. And that changes everything. The shame isn't that we're slowly dying, but that there's too much life out there to taste it all. I decided that the more Curtises and Gregs and Jeffs and Jimmys I met, the better. More neighborhoods and neighbors were better than fewer, even if they only come and go. Even if all the people and words and faces and friendships are all fleeting; just because it's fleeting doesn't mean it never happened. And I decided I wanted it all to happen to me, the wonder and the aging and the sun and the smog and the beauty and despair and confusion and clarity. I still have to remind myself sometimes that I decided all that. I ache to stay at the same time I ache to go.

I dream of Mt. Hood Street all the time. I'm moving up the hill, the houses are thinning out. Mrs. Goodwin's candy cane house is on the right, a little side street leads into my neighborhood where the single towering tree tilts to and fro in golden slow motion. I slow down and the streets are just how I remember them, my house is brown and perfect. My mother is in the window and she's perfect too, young and straight, clear-eyed, like she used to be. A part of me wants to take the little side street back home, and stay and stay and stay.

But Mt. Hood Street keeps on going, winding into the hills. I don't know where it goes. If I stay I'll never know. So in my dream I go, and every time I do I feel a little more alive, and every time I die a little too. The road streaks away and I follow and there's nothing and everything on the horizon, and I don't know for sure where I'm going, because I haven't got there yet.

How It Is to be Groomed by a Miniature Mother Gorilla

I have the best wife ever. Buuuuut... she never runs her hands through my thick, manly head of hair. It's just not her thing -- I get it. Not her fault. The devil made her not do it.

But that's why I have Grace. She's nine. Living with Grace is what it would be like to live with a miniature mother gorilla: she always hovers nearby and makes sure my hair is untangled and free from flakes. It's kind of weird putting that down in writing, but I'm unashamed. I love nothing more on this lovely planet than having someone groom me, and my Grace loves nothing more than doing so. We are a perfect team.

I feel sorry for everyone who doesn't know this person. (Antigua, Guatemala; Sept 2016)

That's why I keep my hair long. Maybe some think I'm trying to make a statement. Be individualistic. Buck the system. Nope. Just keeping Grace happy. She likes it long so she can braid it and brush it and clean it. And that's a good enough reason for me.

***********************************************************

The other night after dinner I was tired from a long week of existing, so I put on some music and laid down on the couch. Like a moth to a flame, Grace soon settled down beside me with some scrunchies and a brush and went to work with my hair while I lost myself in one of those moments where time loops back on itself, and you're aware for an instant that now is so close to then, and yet you're a stranger to them both somehow.

Once, as a teenager, I went to a Smashing Pumpkins concert. The Pumpkins were okay. But the opening band that night stole my heart. Cheeky lyrics. Shiny melodies. Big guitars. The singer's voice sounded like it got crushed against his uvula and then shoved through his nasal passage and out his nose.

And as if that wasn't enough to convert me to Fountains of Wayne then and there, when I found their CD at the record store, the album cover was a photo of a kid in a makeshift Superman outfit, his underwear on the outside of a pair of highwater jeans, a limp red sweatshirt hanging behind him as a cape. And the kid is striking a Man of Steel pose, holding a big, live bunny rabbit. +1 for Fountains of Wayne, +0 for National Geographic.

And I've been a fan since then, delighting over the wit and cleverness of the words, the effortless catchiness of the tunes, the anti-charisma of their live sets, and Chris Collingwood's kind of grating voice, which, for me at least, has over the years become less and less ironically nasal and more and more warmly golden. 

While Grace brushed and braided my hair, the background music on my phone jumped to Collingwood's new project called Look Park, which recently released a wonderfully eclectic set of songs flittering from schmaltzy to breezy to cabaret-flecked waltzes. I half dozed and half listened to Collingwood's wonderfully whiny voice, so familiar from my younger years.

And I thought how everything ages and changes. I remembered a younger, smoother-faced me lying in the summer grass with a gaggle of my friends, a lovely teenage flame pulling her fingers through my dark hair while I contentedly watched the clouds drift across the deep blue. A college-aged Chris Collingwood droned something forgettable from the parked car's speakers. "I've got a flair for pulling your hair and making you crazy."

Now a cute little 9 year-old is pulling her fingers through my greying hair and Chris Collingwood is still droning from my speakers, but not atop power pop choruses anymore. He's pushing 50, and I'm older, and the music has grown up too, all dressed up in tinkling piano keys and warm, Love Boat-esque strings and sophisticated time signatures.

Grace isn't listening. She's just gathering a fist-full of my hair to wrap in a scrunchie. But maybe some place inside of her hears that nasal voice, a little piece of my youth. Maybe she's absorbing a bit from a song called "Breezy," a bit of wisdom Collingwood and I have collected over a few decades of Plinko-Wheeling through this life: "What's that the world taught you? Spun you around and brought you back where you began."

If You Want a Big Fat Uhhhh (or, "Friendship Never Ends")

I believe that my responsibility as a father is to educate my children. This morning, as my 11 year-old son was boarding the school bus, he lolly-gagged at the bus door, holding up the line. "Halen!" I said. "Get out of my dreams, and into the car!" He looked at me all confused-like, and I said, "Oh, it's a Billy Ocean song, It's super cool. I'll play it for you when you get home. You'll love it. Or else you're grounded."

She wants a big fat uhhh. (Caribbean Sea, Belize; 3 Nov 2016)

About a year ago I made a playlist of about a hundred songs from 1985-2005, songs that I remember hearing on the radio when I was growing up, or songs that were popular when I was in high school and college. Songs linked with all the beautiful memories of childhood, and the horrible, putrid moments of adolescence that seem life-ending at the time but that end up being beautiful memories themselves when you're older. They're not all great songs -- a song doesn't have to be well-written, or well-recorded, or brilliant or earth-shaking to make you feel good when you hear it.

I have some Saigon Kick on there, a one-hit wonder, if "Love Is On the Way" was even a hit. I'm honestly not sure. They played it a bunch on the radio in my little hometown but that station also played Belgian synth-pop, so maybe it's not the best barometer for hits.

I sprinkled in some Beach Boys because, as you may remember, they hit paydirt in 1988 with "Kokomo," which, like many songs on my playlist, is so stupid that it's like hugging a well-used teddy bear every time I hear it. One night me and Bing were having a sleepover and for some reason we ended up sleeping in the downstairs hallway outside the laundry room, which seems super weird looking back on it now, since the floor was concrete. Bing passed out but I couldn't sleep, so I went and got my radio and "Kokomo" came on in the middle of the night (probably because it was so bad no one wanted to hear it during the day) and to this day there are no words that, in my mind, rhyme better than "Bahama" and "pretty mama."

There's some Cardigans, "Lovefool," made popular by Romeo + Juliet in 1996. Shakespeare's star was fading in the late-20th century (not really, but I need to establish this made-up fact for literary purposes), but after the summer of '96, all the guys re-realized that chicks dig iambic pentameter and pencil 'staches, and Shakespeare's fortunes were revived. Phew! Fortunately, we can now enjoy at least another century of incest and tragic suicides. 

I am unashamed to admit that "Tubthumping" made my playlist as well -- it's probably the most popular song ever by a band of anarchists. My kids think it's pretty annoying, and so does Rolling Stone magazine, and so does Chumbawamba. But I don't. And I am the only person that matters, apart from Lenny Bruce, who is not afraid, if you were wondering.

I've made my kids listen to the playlist on and off for the past year. They resist sometimes, but a light tazing reminds them to align themselves with my wishes.

But my four year-old, Violet, has found herself a favorite song from the list: "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls, which is obviously an awful song, so awful, in fact, that it's fantastic. One day, after a few months of having the playlist on at dinner and while driving, Shannon heard Violet singing to herself in her room, to the tune of "Wannabe," singing the words, "If you want a big fat Uhhhh, doh-ghee-whoa my fwiends." So, now, around the house when somebody is feeling glum, we ask, "Do you want a big fat Uhhhh?" Oh, man. It's so funny. I guess you have to be there.

The Most Special-est Cubs Fan... Evah!! (or, "Thanks for the Headless Rooster")

When I was about seven years old, I turned on the TV and I discovered sports. I watched all the sports. Tennis enthralled me. Golf held me enraptured. Hockey made me wet my pants, it was so cool (a lot of things made me wet my pants, I just wet my pants a lot). Football and basketball thrilled me. But I loved baseball best. Something about the way every third player was chunky, about how they spit their snuff all over the dugout.

Flying the W as far away as Ambergris Caye, Belize. 3 November 2016, the day after the Cubs won game 7.

After a few months of watching baseball, I decided my favorite team was the Cubs. I was in rural Oregon, so it wasn't a geography thing. It was because my favorite player was on the Cubs. My favorite player was Andre Dawson. He may seem like kind of a strange favorite player for a seven year old kid. But not if you consider that in 1987 Andre Dawson was busy leading the majors in home runs. See, little kids are too young to get cutesy and ironic with their idols. No seven year old kid thinks, "Everybody likes Darryl Strawberry. He's so mainstream. I'm going to like Harold Reynolds, because he hit .275 with 1 homer this season, and he plays for the Mariners, and they have an upside down pitchfork for their logo; no one else will think to like him, so I'll be unique and cool." No seven year old kid thinks that. 

So I liked Andre Dawson. Except 1987 was kind of an anomaly in his career, in terms of power statistics. But what I lacked in creativity for choosing a favorite player and team, I made up for in sheer loyalty. Once Dawson was my man, he was my man for forever. That sounds sort of creepy, but you know what I mean. And I followed Andre and the Cubs since I was seven.

So, the Cubs just won the World Series, blah blah blah. There are forty billion articles about that. I'm not going to write another. It was awesome for long-time Cub fans like me, who cried all alone after the Giants beat the Cubs in the 1989 NLCS and who may or may not have slapped a baby in frustration after the Cubs' 2003 playoff implosion and who seriously thought about unfriending people on Facebook who rooted for teams besides the Cubs during the 2015 playoffs. This year I faithfully watched all season, and settled down to watch game 7 of the World Series even though we were on a family vacation on an island off the coast of Belize. During the eighth inning, as the Indians were storming back from a 3-run deficit, the power went out. On the whole island. Everything just went black. And that was it. No wifi, and cell data didn't work because the roaming signal wasn't strong enough out there. So I didn't get to watch the end of game 7. I just sat there in disbelief in the dark while the kids cried because they were scared of crocodiles in the dark. And I thought, maybe this is fitting -- I am a hard-luck fan of a hard-luck team. And then, when the power came back on the next morning about 5 am and I learned the Cubs had won, I realized I was an even bigger loser than the Cubs, since I'd sat there like a schmuck for a couple hours hoping the power would come back on, and they had, you know, won the World Series.

But this post isn't about the Cubs winning the World Series. It's about how awesome my favorite baseball player is. Andre Dawson is not only a Hall of Famer, he is one of the greatest human beings on the planet.

Case in point: in 1989 I spent all my money on baseball cards, and I had a subscription to Beckett Baseball Monthly, a magazine with no purpose whatsoever apart from telling me that my entire baseball card collection was worth $12. But one month the magazine ran an article explaining how to get an autograph from awesome baseball players. A light bulb went off in my head: I was going to get Andre Dawson's autograph. The article tried to manage little boys' expectations, noting that a lot of players were too busy to respond to autograph requests, but that only applied to Jose Canseco, who never actually read autograph requests because he either rolled them up and smoked them or else soaked them in lemon juice until they dissolved and then injected them directly into his biceps with a syringe to enhance his performance. 

But I was convinced my man Andre would respond. So, per the Beckett article instructions, I hand-wrote a note and put a blank 3x5 note card in an envelope, and sent it to the Cubs' general offices. The note said something like, "Dear Mr. Dawson, my name is Abu Halen and I live in Oregon and I like baseball. I play Little League baseball and my batting stance is just like yours, but I strike out more than you. I strike out a lot, actually, probably because I'm near-sided [note: I now know it's near-sighted, but I was sort of stupid when I was 10]. But I also hit a home run against McDonald's. You are my favorite baseball player and the Cubs are my favorite team. I have your rookie card, even though it's only worth $6.50. If you would please hit 50 or more home runs for the next 5 seasons, it would help me go to college. I would also appreciate very much if you could autograph the sad yellow index card I put in the envelope. P.S. -- you're way better than Kevin Mitchell, no one even ever heard of him before this year, he's probably juicing." The note wasn't just like that, but kind of.

And the next part of the story is why Andre Dawson should be everyone's favorite player -- nay, favorite person -- in the whole world. A few months later, I got a big box in the mail, with the return address of the Cubs' general offices. I excitedly opened it. And inside was... a dead, bloody, headless rooster. Just kidding!!!! 

Here's what was really inside. First I pulled out my sad, yellow 3x5 index card, which Dawson had autographed. But he didn't stop here. He had autographed a 1989 Donruss baseball card of himself, placed it in a nice, hard card-protector, and sent that too. And finally, he autographed a really nice 8x11 photo of himself in mid-swing, framed it in an expensive wooden frame, and put that in the box as well. I couldn't believe it. I felt like the most special Cubs fan in the entire universe. I probably felt like the most special little boy in the whole universe, period. I floated around for a solid six months after getting that package, because Andre Dawson clearly liked me. I was friends with Andre Dawson.

I ordered a back copy of a 1987 issue of Beckett with Dawson on the cover and taped the autographed index card to the lower-right corner of the cover. And I set that prominently on the desk in my bedroom, along with the signed baseball card and the framed photo, propped up against my mirror. And those treasures graced my desk until I left home for college, years later.

I was watching when Dawson collected his 2,500th hit and hit is 400th home run. I was watching at night from across the street with binoculars when he let his dog out to go to the bathroom. Just kidding!!!  I didn't have any binoculars.

In all seriousness though, the guy is still is my favorite player, in any sport. Not just because he was good at baseball, but because he's good.  

Etch-o-Sketch (or, "80% Marias")

Sometimes me and Halen chill in sketchy places. It's a little father-son game we play. It's called "Chill in Sketchy Places." Halen named it. He's not very good at naming things. If I had named it, it would be called "Carburetor Caper." Just cuz. It's not a very fun game. Not like Clue, which is a fun game. Unless you have Mrs. Peacock in your hand because, ugh, she smells like over-the-counter medication.

"Dad, it's not helping that you're wearing a really expensive camera." (San Salvador, El Salvador; Jan 2016) Photo by Ramona Murdock

In El Salvador there are some sketchy places. Public hospitals are sometimes a bit sketch. A couple of months ago I got a call from an elderly Salvadoran woman. She was sick in a bed in a hospital I'd never heard of, in a part of town I had heard of. Sketchy place. She asked for a blessing. I'm a Mormon, and sometimes Mormon people give each other blessings, laying hands on the head of the sick person and offering a short prayer. I believe it's a benefit and a comfort to both the giver and the receiver. I agreed to go visit her. I updated my will.

A friend of mine, a local, came along. The streets buildings grew more worn down, the graffiti denser, as we moved toward downtown. The hospital looked sad and gray and droopy, the asphalt in the parking lot pocked and chipped. The yellow paint demarcating the parking spots was worn away. People swarmed everywhere, the ladies in halter-tops, the guys in jeans and t-shirts and really old polos. 

The guy at the front desk was aggressively turning people away. "It's past visiting hours!" he said, hustling the family in front of us back out the door they'd entered through. "You'll have to come back tomorrow!" I thought maybe he'd shoo us away, too. We approached in our white shirts, slacks, and ties. When you're giving a blessing, you try to dress respectfully. My friend told the guard our business. He smiled. "Good for you! God bless you!" He waived us through.

Something like 80 people got on the elevator at the next floor up. One guy was wearing sneakers and a Tommy Hilfiger shirt from 1995. Everyone called him "doctor," and he didn't correct them. I think he was really the doctor. Which was super depressing and super awesome at the same time.

The elderly woman who had called us in was sharing a hospital room with four other people. No curtains betweens beds. Each lady had a bag of something clear hanging from a hook in the wall behind the bed, and a tube led from the bag to her wrist. It was a really sobering room. Drab walls. Flaking paint. Open windows let in the smell of diesel. We chatted with the elderly lady for a few minutes, then gave her the blessing. The room went quiet.

Afterward, a really, really, really old lady across the room mumbled something and sort of feebly lifted her hand in our direction. I glanced at my companion, because I don't always understand Spanish very well, especially when the speaker is over 200 years old. He shrugged a little. "I think she wants a blessing too," he said out of the corner of his mouth. We shuffled over to her bed, and he leaned down to confirm what he thought he'd heard. She nodded. Her name was Maria. It was written on a warped piece of paper stuck to the wall with a piece of masking tape. We gave her a blessing. Then the old lady in the next bed wanted a blessing too. And the next one too. We moved from bed to bed, reading the names on the sad pieces of paper above the beds, offering short blessings to all five old ladies. Maria and Maria and Maria and Deisy and Maria. That's a lot of Marias. Sometimes it just happens that way. 

We visited with our new friends for a few more minutes. Mostly I just smiled and nodded and said "gracias" a lot, because I couldn't understand a single thing they were saying. At least not with their lips. I could understand what their eyes were saying. And that made all the sketchiness worth it.

Electric Witches Brew (or, "Children of the Tropics")

Sometimes at night you can see the clouds, their low-hanging underbellies lit by the city's glow. And you can just tell from their shape and color, from the staccato rhythm of the tree limbs shimmying in the wind gusts, that a storm is about to break.

We ain't 'fraid of no storms. Or ghosts. Or authorized personnel.

Last night as I was coaching the kids through the bedtime routine the windowpanes suddenly groaned and the front door trembled for a moment on its hinges. I moved to an upstairs window. The night sky was dropping, the clouds swirled, and then they lit up from above and beneath and inside themselves all at the same time, like electric witch's brew.

I helped Violet brush her teeth. Rain started, first a rumor against the roof, then suddenly a roar. I tucked the kids into bed while outside the falling water whipped the world in waves. Lightning pulsed harsh and pale, otherwordly strobe lights on the terra cotta red roof tiles. I read a book in my favorite chair in my dark bedroom beside a warm, orange lamp as thunder tried to punch a hole through the night.

After awhile I got up to check on the kids, and there they were, all fast asleep, while thunder peals pounded against the walls and lightning flash-bulbed through the windows and across their smooth faces. Children of the stormy tropics, they have become. Storms that would've made younger versions of Abu Halen wet his pants don't faze these fierce-electrical-storm-resistant munchkins. I couldn't be more proud of them, or smitten with them. (And, to be clear, Abu Halen no longer wets his pants, for the most part, except when creepy and unexpected jacks-in-the-box are involved.)

 

On Archery and Cannibalism and the Satisfying Thunk of Victory

There are two things I never really anticipated by kids being interested in. One is archery, and the other is cannibalism. So far they are still not interested in cannibalism, which makes me feel good about myself as a parent. My son, however, has taken an interest in archery, which is pretty cool, whereas of course cannibalism is not cool. Unless you're a Donner, in which case I'm not going to judge you. But I won't go hiking with you, just in case. 

This is me throwing off Halen's groove.

Archery is offered as a free after-school activity and the British school our children attend, and free is a price that I can afford. Halen started coming home with bruised wrists from the constant snapping of the string, so we bought him a cool looking wrist guard that also has finger protectors to combat blistered fingers from pulling back the bow string. He looks bad when he wears it. Not Jack Abramoff bad, but Michael Jackson bad. But not that kind of Michael Jackson bad. The other kind. Chicks dig it. Or, at least they will in a few years when braces have fixed his teeth.

Ready, aim, twang!

Halen participated in his first real archery tournament a month or so ago, held at the Salvadoran Olympic training facility. The archery range is a big field on the side of the volcano, set in a natural bowl with corn planted by indigent farmers lining the sloped sides. It isn't a multi-million dollar facility pumping out world-class Olympians, but it was pleasant enough for an afternoon. 

Corn crop in the background.

Nerves got the best of Halen for the first few rounds, but he settled down nicely. We enjoyed watching Halen and the other newbie competitors, while also strolling down the shooting line to where the Olympians-in-training took their aim and fired from a hundred yards. They used complex bows, veritable motors of cord and fiberglass and gears. I liked the sound of their arrows slicing through the humid air with a faint buzz, the satisfying thunk as they buried themselves in the target.

All in all we had a great afternoon as a family, cheering on Halen (well, cheering him as much as one cheers in archery -- it's not even quite as cheering-friendly as curling) and watching the pros a little as well. It was a great learning experience for Halen, and I let Grace practice her photography a little bit -- don't worry, close-ups like this will be prohibited in the future.

Awesome! Awesomer! Awesomest! (or, "My Mom Would Be Mad If She Saw Me Now")

They were throwing fireballs at each other and I was trying to take pictures of them throwing fireballs at each other, because I'm insipid. That's the same as intrepid, I am pretty sure. Taking pictures of flaming dodgeball seemed like a good idea at the beginning, the same way that, after you watched The Matrix and saw Neo and Trinity walk up those one walls and then do that mid-air cartwheel thing while firing automatic weapons, it seemed like a good idea to try it yourself, but then, gravity and head trauma and your hamster and ceiling fan got shot.

Assured of my looming death by fire, I decided why not just take a bunch of photos to document my final moments. (Nejapa, El Salvador; Aug 2016)

Before I go any further, here's the background: There's a little town called Nejapa, maybe ten or fifteen miles from San Salvador. In 1658, the nearby volcano exploded and showered the village with balls of flaming rock and lava. The villagers imbued the event with religious significance, believing that the raining fireballs were being thrown at the devil by their patron village saint. It's not clear why the patron saint didn't throw the fireballs away from the village rather than at it. Anyhow, rather than be all upset about the whole volcanic-eruption-destroying-your-village thing, the villagers relocated the town and concocted a festival -- "Las Bolas de Fuego" -- which they celebrate every year on August 31st by selecting about 20 townsmen and dividing them into two teams which then chuck flaming, kerosine-soaked rag balls at each other in the middle of main street while everyone watches.

I wanted to watch too. Just from a closer place. Because you only live once, and you don't get a lot of chances to take close-ups of guys throwing fire at each other. I guess I didn't think it all through very well, which is a weakness of mine, I admit. Like that time when me and Shannon had kids and then, after they were born, I was like, "Man, they just keep staying and staying." So I positioned myself on the sidewalk between the two teams as they prowled their respective ends of the narrow cobblestone street, waiting for someone to decide to start things up.

These guys are like, "You can run if you want to, but we'll find you. And then our grandmas will feed you pupusas." (Nejapa, El Salvador; Aug 2016)

Then one team picked up their balls of fire and charged up the street toward me. Awesome! Then the other team charged down the street with their fireballs toward me. Awesomer! Then the flaming balls flew, arcing through the night like little comets with their fiery tails burning in the black night sky . Awesomest! Then the two teams met up right in front of me, and suddenly I looked up and down the sidewalk and it was empty and I was the only dummy standing there a few feet from the crossfire, and then a flaming ball whizzed past my head and I heard the horrible hiss and whoosh of flying fire and felt the searing heat, and the reality switch in my head flipped on and I thought, I am doing something really stupid mom would be mad if she saw me now. So I screamed like a little girl and ran away, and a stray fireball fell out of the sky with a hot roar and into a barrel of water as I ran past, splashing me with water and kerosine and I loudly whimpered for my mommy again and slumped against the wall of a butcher shop and sucked my thumb, smelling like a gas station attendant after a 36-hour shift. That's all true, except the thumb-sucking part. My thumb was too flammable to suck.

I suppose that, by American sensibilities, a festival in which people chuck burning, kerosine-soaked rags at each other is really weird and stupid. But I think it's really just a matter of viewpoint. If you take a step back, boxing is pretty dumb, and ultimate fighting is dumber. Two guys just beating each other up in what amounts to a cage, with a bunch of paying customers watching. We tsk at the old Roman custom of gladiator matches, but we're getting there ourselves. A little fireball throwing fits right in.

When You've Left Your Heart in the Portland Rain

The seasons can get a little confusing here in El Salvador. We're quite a ways north of the equator, so it's summer right now. But it's also rainy season, which keeps temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than during the dry season. For this reason, Salvadorans sometimes call rainy season winter, even though it's actually summer. 

What Central America rain seems like. (Multnomah Falls, Oregon; July 2016)

Rainy season is usually quite nice. Most days dawn more or less clear, with blue skies persisting until afternoon thunderstorms form and drop daily downpours. The last couple of days though have been unusually dreary. Clouds and rain without thunder. And it was over the past couple of days that I realized I've become accustomed to El Salvador, because rain without thunder or lightning strikes me as abnormal.

I've grown comfortable with the sound of tropical thunderstorms. They dump water with little warning. Tink... tink tink... tinktinktinkplunkplunkbangbangBANGBANGBANGWHOOSH! Impatient, aggressive, fleeting rain. It rushes from a black, angry sky, exhausts itself, then breaks into fluffy ribbons lit by the reemergent sun.

But the last couple days here have reminded me of the sounds of western Oregon rain, where I grew up with the sound of drizzle outside. Tink... tink tink tink... plunk... tink... Calm, easy, lingering rain. It sort of materialized on the ground from a formless, grey, low sky, without beginning and without end. The sound of car tires splashing through rain puddles, the smell of wet leaves and pavement, street light reflections off wet streets. 

What Central American rain is actually like. Not quite waterfall intensity, but still a lot of water. (Apaneca, El Salvador; June 2016)

Over our last few dreary, rainy days, it's been nice to have a brief reminder of Portland weather, even if it was 35 degrees warmer here than it ever was during Portland's dreary winter drizzle. I still miss it sometimes. M. Ward put it best: "Every town is all the same when you've left your heart in the Portland rain."

Mediocrely Sexy Lungs (or, "Beaverhead 55k Race Report")

My main goal in running the Beaverhead 55k was to, in the words of INXS, "live, baby, live." INXS always has good advice, except for the whole listen like thieves thing, which ended up getting sixth-grade me chased down and menaced by a group of seventh grade guys after I'd eavesdropped like a thief on their bonfire at the neighbor girl's house, to the extent that I didn't listen to INXS for awhile thereafter, for self-preservation purposes. I did end up living through the Beaverhead race, despite all the possible ways there are to die during an ultramarathon, like horseflies.

These runners are not me, but you can imagine they are me, and that I have super fearsome lungs. (Photo by Dave Lingle)

This particular race took place at high elevations along the Continental Divide, straddling the Idaho/Montana border. Shannon gave me a ride to the starting line so I didn't have to take the 4:30 am shuttle, which meant I could lay in bed and stare at the ceiling for an extra hour, which was super awesome and motivating. At the starting area, we ran into one of Shannon's friends from high school, who was helping organize the race. He gave me some pro secret cheats, like "There is a Pokeman somewhere on this course."  

There was a solid vibe at the starting line. Everybody looked formidable, like they all had huge lungs. Sometimes I imagine people's lungs. It's just a neurosis I have. Stop judging me. Also, huge lungs are a boon for Beaverhead runners, because the race starts at about 7,300 feet of elevation and only goes up from there. My lungs are kind of tiny. It's why girls didn't like me in college. I can still feel the sting of rejection: "Hi. Do you have big lungs?" "Um, no, not really." "Oh. Well, see you later then, if I'm unlucky."

I did most of my training for the race in El Salvador, so I didn't have access to elevation training. But I am pretty well conditioned to deal with oppressive heat and suffocating humidity, neither of which is characteristic of the Continental Divide, unfortunately. Knowing this, I opted to start the race slowly, which was probably wise, because over the first two or three miles we gained over 1,000 vertical feet. About six minutes into the race I was wheezing, and I thought, "Nice. Man, why do my lungs suck so bad (pun intended)."

Here is a photo I took about 90 seconds after the race started. Not pictured is me trying desperately to breathe, feeling like I had already run 20 miles, despite having walked approximately 300 feet.

The first aid station was at a little over four miles. There was a lot of energy there. Good juju. On my way in all the volunteers were cheering super loud for me, so I busted out the super original one-liner, "Man, I must be in first place!" And they kind of politely laughed, and then they guy 30 seconds behind me made the same joke, and I was like, "Dang. Small lungs and unoriginal jokes." Lots of people passed me at the aid station. I'm kind of an aid station lingerer. I like juju baths. And other kinds of baths, too. I bathe frequently.

Things leveled out nicely after that first aid station and I finally got into a bit of a groove, enjoying the winding trail through the trees, the cool, early morning air. I caught up to and then pulled away from a pod of runners, and one guy pulled away with me. Funny thing -- I've no idea what the guy looked like, his name, nothing. He stayed behind me for five or six miles and we talked a lot, but I never turned around to see him. You can call me lazy if you want to, but I ran 34 miles on a Saturday earlier this month while you were watching Finding Dory, so.

Around 11 miles, we hit the second aid station. It had less energy than the first aid station, but it had bacon. Bacon > energy. Einstein really missed the boat with all that time he wasted on E=mc2. If he was actually a smart guy he would've worked out an equation for bacon. Thanks to Einstein we know how to produce energy, but whoop-de-doo. Where's your equation for producing bacon out of mass and the speed of light? Riddle me that, Einstein. Anyhow, even though I am a partisan of bacon, I didn't eat any. It had heartburn written all over it, in dry erase marker, which is bad for your liver. So is seppuku. 

For the next several hours I ran alone. Kind of slowly. I gave myself pep talks, like, "Nice, Abu Halen, you really slayed that last mile," and "Abu Halen you have really strong and sexy lungs" (I didn't really believe myself when I said that second one). I'd been at around 8,500 feet elevation for several hours, and was now climbing to nearly 9.500 feet. I do a lot of math in my head when I'm distance running, figuring out pace and stuff, and it was at this point in the race that I noticed I could no longer perform simple multiplication and division, which was sad because I was then forced to think about John Denver's really circular glasses.

About sixteen or seventeen miles into the race, I hit a really low point. After a couple of short but steep uphill rock scrambles, I was wheezing on the spine of the Bitterroot Mountains at 9.500 feet, thinking how I really need less Dr. Pepper in my life, or else I need way more Dr. Pepper in my life, or something, because things weren't working. So I stumbled into an aid station at mile 19 and decided I need to park it for awhile and eat M&Ms. Tell me a problem M&Ms can't solve. Besides subpar gas mileage. Apart from that, there's no other problem M&M's can't solve.

And sure enough, after taking a chillax and several doses of M&Ms, I felt like maybe the world wasn't falling apart, and I had a pleasant but slow four or five miles to the next station at Janke Lake, where I again leveraged M&Ms to improve my mood, like Prozac, but cheaper.

This runner also isn't me, but you can imagine that if it was me it would be a boy. (Photo by Dave Lingle)

A mile or so out of Janke Lake, I hit a three or four mile portion of the course known as the scree field, which sits between 9,500 and 10,000 feet, consists of loose shards of talus rock that shift with each step beneath your weight, and lies along the pinnacle of the Bitterroots. Only feet to your right, the slope falls away vertically a solid couple thousand feet into Montana, and to your left, it slopes at a slightly more gentle grade downward into Idaho. You climb peak after peak for those endless three or four miles, thinking every summit is the last, but it's not, and you find yourself hating everything, even Thomas Jefferson, because it's his fault America ever found this place. 

Every Beaverhead runner knows the scree field cometh and you have to deal with it, and maybe you'll cry, or, if you've hauled a sword for 23 miles, maybe you'll ceremonially disembowel yourself just to end it all. I actually handled it better than I thought I would due to the fact that I'm a pessimist and I had pictured and unimaginably horrible scree field that would last for decades and you'd have to leap over famished vipers and ford the river Styx, and maybe perform a flawless karaoke of a song by the band Styx, probably "Babe," which would be really embarrassing. So I found the actual scree field relatively manageable as I kept pace with my partner in crime, a lady from I do not know where whose name I do not know but who had on a blue jacket, or maybe it was yellow. All I know is we entered the scree field at the same time and we stuck together the whole way, not really saying much, both just silently glad to have another human nearby, as, apart from one another, we were alone in the wind on the bare backbone of the mountains, trying to suck down what little oxygen we could find at 10,000 feet. 

This is me looking backward at part of the course I just ran, wondering why I didn't select an alternate route with 5,000 or so less feet of elevation.

Before I expected it to, the scree field ended, the trail dropped precipitously to the west, and I was kind of overcome with a bizarre sense of giddiness. I think it had to do with realizing that I was most likely going to finish and that the last 7 or 8 miles were downhill, and also it maybe partly had to do with the fact that my brain had been receiving insufficient blood for hours (or years, as my wife may argue). 

Down the veritable goat trail I gaily bounded, losing 2,000 vertical feet in 1. 5 miles, until I arrived at the final aid station, where I dropped my phone and shattered the screen. I shrugged and stupidly grinned and said something completely divorced from reality, like "Nyeh, it's not that expensive to fix these things, no big deal," and continued downhill riding a big dumb wave of euphoria through a couple of cool creek crossings and a few mud bogs. The trees got leafier, the birds beefier (I might've been hungry at this point), and my knees had been pounded so much by the course's ups and downs that they'd gone numb, which was super awesome -- one of my mottos is "when your body is telling you something, ignore it until it shuts up," which also works for children.

Shannon was at the finish when I got there after a little more than 9.5 hours of running/lurching. It was kind of cool to have her there, but the best thing I could pull out of her was a high five; she rebuffed my attempt at both a hug and a kiss, citing my poor hygiene. This was okay with me, because I wanted a Coke and a burger far more than a smooch -- no offense Shannon, but could you make your smooches more burger-like in the future. I finished 49th out of 113 runners, solidly mediocre. I can't decide whether I want my running nickname to be Solidly Mediocre or Sexy Lungs. Maybe Mediocrely Sexy Lungs would be proper. 

Be Cool. Follow the Rules. Stay in School, Paula Abdul (or, "Straight Up, Thou Shalt Tell Me")

The longer I live outside the United States, the funner it is to go back. And the more I keep using the word "funner," the more better my life is.

Why is it funner to return to the U.S. if I've been away for a long time? It's funner because I'm still an American, so I'm going home; but I'm also juuuuust enough of an outsider that I can see the homeland's quirks in a way that I couldn't were I to live there day in and day out. And that is a lot of fun. Weeeeeeeeeeeee.

Susu standing before, and I quote, "the best waterfall in the world," which has no name. (Larch Mountain Trail, Oregon; Jun 2016)

What struck me in particular on this visit is how much Americans love rules. For instance, we obediently observe the rule, "Thou shalt stand in line, and thou shalt not cut. Remembereth the guy who steadied the Ark? Don't cut." But if you cut, most Americans won't say anything, we just stare knives into your spleen, because saying something would be breaking the rule that says: "Thou shalt not talk to anyone thou knowest not personally, except if they operateth a cash register, and even then, sayeth only that which is necessary to complete thy purchase. Be-eth not all up in his biz."

Case in point: I took two flights to return home to El Salvador. The first flight was domestic -- one U.S. city to another. Most, if not all, passengers were acculturated Americans. The call went out for Zone 1 to board, and passengers with "Zone 1" printed on their boarding passes obediently lined up single file; everybody else gave them wide berth so as to not to violate the rule: "Thou shalt give each person proper personal space; preferably, one or more time zones shall separate thee from thy neighbor -- don't getteth Me wrong, thou shalt love thy neighbor, just, thou knowest, tryeth to standeth not in the same time zone as he." And so on with each boarding zone.

Everybody is being funny. EVERYBODY. Except the dog just couldn't figure it out. (Gresham, Oregon; July 2016)

Conversely, my second flight was from an American city directly to El Salvador. Ninety percent of passengers were Salvadoran. As soon as somebody said the word "board" into the speaker phone, we all just mobbed the gate, like the gate was a pupusa and we hadn't had any pupusas yet today. The poor fools who queued up had Salvadoran grandmas in wheelchairs roll over their hapless toes as the grandmas beelined for the gate. Salvadorans appear, in general, to just not be quite as into the queuing rule as we Americans are.

Weeeeeeee, oh man, reading that blog post was fun. But I have just, as of this moment, decided I no longer feel like typing. I hereby dub this blog post Part One, and I will write more later, when I feel like it, and I will dub it Part Two, or perhaps I will dub it Clarence. It's tough to tell how I'll feel later on. Sorry I didn't actually work Paula Abdul into the post. What can I say. You got caught in a hit and run. I am a cold-hearted snake. 

All the Reviews of COSTA RICA (Everything is Better in ALL CAPS)

Since it's our anniversary month, me and Shannon took our first EVER trip without kids, since on our first anniversary we already had a kid. Actually, now that I think about it, we did manage a trip to the Oregon Coast on our third anniversary, but Shannon was really sick from being pregnant with our second kid, so it wasn't much of a getaway. It was more like, "Want to walk on the beach?" "No, the ocean makes me sick." "Want to watch a movie?" "No, the TV makes me sick." "Want me to just sit here and look around while you lay there?" "No, you make me sick." "Want me to leave and come back tomorrow sometime?" "Yes, actually that sounds quite nice."

No better sight than Shannon hauling my camera gear like a boss.

So for our first proper trip sans kids, we went to Costa Rica. I will write a review of each aspect of the experience, on scales from 1-10.

Comalapa Int'l Airport, El Salvador: 7. It's what an airport is supposed to be -- a place where you get on a plane. That's it. It's, like, 2 hallways so you can't get lost and there are lots of bathrooms that host relatively few Civil War-era diseases. I get annoyed at huge airports with trams and trains and massage parlors, where I'm like, "Are there any airplanes here?"

Flight from San Salvador to San Jose: 10. It's only 55 minutes long, so that's it. I can do anything for 55 minutes, including listening to "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You" by Michael Bolton on repeat.

Rental car place: 6. Guy at the front desk had his hair parted down the middle, which was kind of cool. Our car was a Suzuki Jimny -- third-best car name ever -- and a stick shift to boot. The windows you roll down manually made me feel like a kid again, but a kid with odd shoulder pains that started when he picked up his kid, which is a strange mental picture, I know.

World's smallest 4x4, or, as the British say, "four times four."

The Garmin GPS they pushed on us for $6/day: -86. Worst product ever, even worse than my rotten middle toenail on my right foot, which is in fact a product because I'll sell it to you for $0.45. The Garmin lady who kept shouting directions at us was super confused and couldn't figure out which country we were in. We shut it off after a half hour and I just used my Cub Scout skills of following the sun and the scent of crabs.

The drive from San Jose to Punta Islita on the southern coast of the Nicoya Peninsula: 8. It rained a lot, which I like. Also, we found a super awesome radio station that played all the classics, like a 50 year old Celine Dion singing "The Power of Love" live, which made me almost throw up, in a good way.

Punta Islita Hotel: 10. Probably the nicest hotel I'll ever stay in. We paid with Marriott points we got from living in a Marriott-affiliated corporate apartment for 7 months, and then a Marriott Courtyard for another 6 weeks. When we arrived, they upgraded us a "junior suite," complete with its own splash pool (a euphemism for "super, super tiny pool"). The adult pool was pretty cool, but we couldn't order Cokes at the swim-up bar because this other couple hogged it the whole weekend so they could get drunk while watching all the Harry Potter movies.  

Fortunately we are too far away to see that I have soaked through all my clothing with sweat.

Trail running options: 8. No paved roads within miles, and bright red and purple forest crabs infested the muddy dirt roads. I got in a couple of solid runs, which were actually closer to "lurches" due to the stifling heat and humidity. I carried a two-liter of water with me like a football, which I think made me look super hard core, sort of like Walter Payton, except slower and less agile, and with no connections to Chicago to speak of.

Weather: 10. Heavy rain and serious thunderstorms, interspersed with searing sunshine. The thunder was so loud it made the drunk guy at the swim-up bar cry for his mommy. Just kidding, that didn't happen, to the best of my knowledge.

This incoming storm brought a couple inches of rain and enough lightning to shock the monkey.

Horse riding experience: 5. Conga, my horse, got really tired and started breathing heavy and I thought she might die. I do not know how to expeditiously dismount a dying horse.

Ziplining: 8. No chit-chat, no nonsense. The guides were like, "Don't put your hand in front of the pulley. K go." Shannon broke the sound barrier.

You can't actually see that Shannon has broken the sound barrier, because you can't see sound. But she did.

Food at the school benefit cookout in the tiny village 20 minutes from the hotel, the road to which required fording a river: 4. Overpriced at $5 per plate of rice. Plus the cute black dog would NOT stop trying to eat off my plate. I was like, "You eat my rice, you're paying for it pal." We got invited afterward to come back that night to play bingo, which boosts my rating from a 2 to a 4.

My swim trunks: 3. Colored like the Union Jack, they really look like I got them at Wal-Mart, which I did. 

The tattoos on the guy who was eloping with his girlfriend: 4. Slightly better than my swim trunks. The guy's back looked like a sticker album where he was just sticking random tattoos, like here's one of a gaggle of geese, and there's one of Boris Karloff. But he had a great beard, and I liked his shoes.

I guess I could think of more stuff to review, but, c'mon man, you really need to get back to Facebook. 

My Wife Is Waaaaay Better Than a Blobfish

Dear Shannon: This month marks fourteen years of marriage for us. Fourteen years is a long time, especially if you're a fruit fly. But you're not a fruit fly, and that's one of the reasons why I like you.

I remember the first time I saw you. It was relief at first sight. We'd been set up on a blind date, one couple among a group of five that was to spend the evening playing board games and tie dying shirts. Your apartment hosted, and the other nine of us met in your living room. You were still in the back, getting ready, mysterious-like. And I was like, "Ugh, she's going to look like a blobfish." Because I'm a pessimist. It's just how I am. 

Solid effort, guys.

So I sat there, dreading having to small talk all evening with a blobfish, but then you strolled out to greet us all, and -- sweet relief! -- you weren't a blobfish. And you came over and introduced yourself in your casual blue jeans and slightly retro red top with 70s style flowers embroidered near the waistline, and I thought, "Not only is she cuter than a blobfish, she is also cuter than Jewel" (who I secretly wanted to marry at the time, or at least eat waffles with her). 

You were really nice to me that evening. You didn't get mad when we played Taboo and we were partners and I kept saying the word at the top of the card that you're not supposed to say. I was so distracted by your shiny hair, which was even shinier and healthier than the guys' hair from Nelson. Then, later, when the other couples were visiting among themselves while we waited for the tie dyed shirts to dry, you let me monologue for a long time about the relative virtues of each Led Zeppelin album. Which was extra benevolent because I don't think you knew what Led Zeppelin was. 

It was several weeks before we had a second date. You were pretty busy with work and dating twelve other guys and forgetting that I existed. But then, inexplicably, you emailed me to say hi, and then I emailed you back, like, 4 seconds later, and I asked if you wanted to barter for cows (not real cows, fake cows, it was a game). And you weren't thinking straight, because you said yes. It was super nice, the way you worked me into your Thursday night date slot. I wasn't quite Friday or Saturday material. Which is fair -- I'm still not really Friday or Saturday material, and that's probably why you make me go out in the backyard every Friday morning and don't let me back in the house until Sunday. 

But back then, I remember I worked hard every Thursday night to prove I was more than a scrawny body, homely face, and middling intellect, even though I wasn't in reality much more than a scrawny body, homely face, and middling intellect. Eventually though, you unexplainably lowered your standards and promoted me to weekend dates. I did not disappoint: I took you on a drive to see fall foliage several weeks after all the leaves had fallen off the trees. I also bought us $3 tickets to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at a local high school.

I'm still grateful for the spectacular lapse of judgment you exhibited when you agreed to my marriage proposal. Probably it was because it was dark and you weren't 100% sure who was asking. Either way, it was my lucky day. Jewel is a blobfish compared to you. And that is the highest compliment this classy guy can pay.