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

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

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

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

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

Behold, Milford!

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

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

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

Clearly, this motel is full.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End. And don't trespass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End.

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

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

Just a reminder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weligama Bay, Sri Lanka (Jan 2018)

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

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

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

Weligama Bay, Sri Lanka (Jan 2018)

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

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

Motorcycling in Delhi: Skillful and Stupid Are My Maiden Names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Salvador, El Salvador (Apr 2017)

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

Delhi, India (Sep 2017)

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

Delhi, India (Dec 2017)

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

Rizong Monastery, India (Oct 2017)

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

Thiksey Monastery, India (Oct 2017)

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

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

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

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

Reston, Virginia (Jan 2007)

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

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

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

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (May 2007)

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

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

Fire, Dust, and the Holy Ganges River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naggar, India; October 2017

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

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

Jana, India; October 2017

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

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

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

Naggar, India; October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

You belong somewhere you feel free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monkey Bullies and the Taste of a Carnival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oooohhhhhhh yeah. (Delhi, India; August 2017)

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

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