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.

96 Hours in Nicaragua, Part 1 (or, "24 hours in Nicaragua")

When we go to Nicaragua, we drive to Nicaragua, like the cavemen did. None of this floofy flying stuff for us. We are tight with the road, with the earth, with the wind, which sometimes smells somewhat like body odor and urine.

We proved 18 months ago on our first trip to Nicaragua that it's possible to drive from San Salvador to Granada in one arc of the sun across the autumnal Central American sky, even accounting for a 1.5 hour detour on dirt roads that Google Maps suggested constituted the quickest route. This time around we were less ambitious, aiming only to reach Managua. 

The drive was uneventful, save the fact that Honduras inexplicably decided to install storm drains across the Pan-Americana Highway at .25 mile intervals throughout the entire country. Literally the entire country. It's like if you were on I-95 and there were speed bumps every quarter mile. Also imagine that sheep and goats and cows also used I-95, and you would have it. Another fun part of the trip was when the official at the Nicaragua border crossing insisted that our car was not blue (it is admittedly a girly shade of blue, but definitely blue), intimating that it may not be the vehicle described on our title and that we therefore may be car thieves. I didn't disabuse him of this notion, mostly because I suck at Spanish.

The Hyatt in Managua is probably one of the nicer hotels in town. Just across the parking lot is an outdoor promenade, a plaza-type area with restaurants and shops. Upscale. We ate there, not because we're particularly upscale, but because it was convenient and we were bushed from driving all day. Sometimes I feel like a plastic person in places like that. Consuming an artificial reality, moving about on the surface of a facade that somehow floats independently, with the real world of dust and bones and hard-set jaws spinning just beyond eyeshot. While we ate our food --cooked to the chain restaurant's corporately-dictated specifications -- a pod of lightly-stubbled young men at a nearby table laughed raucously at seemingly carefully-planned intervals. Laughed so loudly and so deliberately, their unsmiling eyes darting hungrily around the plaza as they guffawed, that it was hard to escape the impression that we were on a movie set where everything, the tables and neon lights and blonde Latinas hanging on heavily-cologned arms, existed for consumption, where everyone was an actor, an entertainer, and simultaneously a spectator. And all of this while paces away real Managua grinded its teeth in a clutch of traffic and diesel and cracking concrete. We paid our bill and returned to the hotel room to watch the Disney Channel, that mirror of authenticity.

Have you ever been to Granada? I hadn't either, until the next day. But the parents, or maybe the grandparents, of my grandfather lived there in a big house off the main square. I arrived with my children at half past ten, and the first thing that Savannah saw upon liting from the car was a family of cockroaches scurrying across the street. She insisted that we leave this squalid place immediately, but then a passing car squashed the roach family, and I smiled at her, and she smiled at me. Back in the saddle. 

In the center of Granada's leafy main plaza, while ignoring a man attempting to sell us sunglasses, I lectured my children on the cascade of family, how there's something that flows through the generations, touching us, filling us with substance -- the stuff of being alive -- and how that something once swept through this place where we stood, filling the bellies and the brains and the veins of people -- our ancestors -- who moved across the very dirt now beneath our feet. And how that same something was now pooling in the beady sweat on the brows of my children, swirling in eddies beneath the prints on the pads of their fingers, threading through us, cinching together the fabrics of then and now. "I'm hot," said Grace. "Is there any ice cream here?" said Halen. "I'm bow-wed," said Violet, who can't say her "r's." I really think I got through to them.

Next installment: learn about bull sharks, the scenic route from Granada to Juigalpa, what to do when your wife abandons you in a small town famous for cheese, and maybe a little about an allegedly crystal clear swimming hole which actually may have contained human poo.

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 if I was ever moving to India, I would've slapped you and said, "That's crazy talk." 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, "That's crazy talk," I would chuckle at the irony, from behind my dresser, while crying.

So, strange as it seems, India became 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.

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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.