Knowing Your Rights Is Important And So Is Reading This Account of My Experiences With The Legend of Zelda

A couple weeks ago I bought my kids the newest Legend of Zelda video game, because I was thinking how we just don't waste as much time as we should. Also, I was thinking how I want my kids to grow and develop into maladroits who struggle to form meaningful connections with anything that isn't made of television pixels. So, I thought, two birds, one stone. Bam. Easy call.

"Good graphics" is such a subjective phrase.

I am not going to paint a rosy picture for you, like we all just play Zelda and love each other and everything's fine. I mean, Zelda's hard. My son plays after school when I'm still at work, and my four year-old daughter watches him, then, later, when I sit down to play for a few minutes, my daughter is like, "Buy the slingshot," "Next you have to find the monkey," "Give that cat a fish and it leads you to a bunch of rupees," and I'm like, "Dude, I can figure it out for myself, okay? I'm 37 years old. Gosh." Then, later, after I can't figure it out, I'm like, "Violet. Where's the monkey. Tell me where the monkey is."

Probably the best times of my life have come while playing Zelda. For Christmas in 1986, I really wanted a Nintendo, but my parents were still stuck in the 70s they bought me an Atari and 8-track of the Bay City Rollers. I cried and broke things. My friend Curtis's parents, however, bought him a Nintendo AND the Legend of Zelda, because they were employed. I don't remember Curtis ever actually letting me hold the controller, but I watched him play Zelda for a solid six months, which, looking back, was super pathetic. 

Later, my parents actually bought me a Nintendo after I punched a kid at school and blamed it on my violent Atari games, like Combat and Food Fight. The next Christmas, to prove that she had burned and buried the 1970s, my mom somehow secured a copy of Zelda II: the Adventures of Link, which was so sought-after that Christmas that Mom had to sell her kneecaps to get it, which was no big deal because Mom didn't use her kneecaps very much anyhow. Zelda II was really hard. I never did beat it, even though I often locked myself in the laundry room with our rotary phone and repeatedly called the Ninendo game cheats toll hotline. When my mom got the phone bill, she had some choice words for me, like "cannibalize" and "my offspring" and "if I still had kneecaps."

Once when we were playing Zelda, my friend Curtis's mom told us to "shut off that video game, NOW!" And we were like, "Dude, Curtis's Mom, just two more minutes! We've got to beat the triceratops boss!" And she was like, "If you don't turn it off I will turn it off for you!" And we were like, "Just, like, 45 more seconds! We've got triceratops boss on the ropes!" And then she stomped in and UNPLUGGED THE NINTENDO!! And me and Curtis were like, "You don't love us!" And Curtis told me between sobs, he told me, "It doesn't make sense when you say it, because she's not your mom so obviously she doesn't love you," and I was like, "Riiiiiiiight, that's true," so I just went home.

And now life has come full circle. A couple of days ago I told my son, I says, "Turn off Zelda, NOW!" And he was like, "Dad, bro! Two more minutes! I need to beat the troll boss!" And I was like, "I will unplug that stupid machine if you don't turn it OFF!" And he was like, "Just, like, give me a minute dad, this is important!" And I was like, "I'll SHOW you important!!" But then I remembered the pain and despair of losing all of that unsaved Zelda progress so many years ago, the waves of wanting to die, or get a Happy Meal, and I felt a rare pang of mercy. So I was like, "OK, fine, murder that stupid troll and then brush your stupid TEETH!!" because I like to capitalize one word of every sentence I speak. And that's how much Zelda means to me. Exactly one blog post.

Maintaining Perspective (or, "How Instagram Cannot Accurately Convey How Sometimes My Overseas Lifestyle Blows")

I am a little bit of a traveler. Since 2003, my family has spent roughly half our lives outside our home country. It's a fun life. Yesterday I was soaking in a hot pea green mineral pool in the Central American mountains, keeping one eye on my kids to make sure that when they completely disappeared into the opaque water they surfaced again, and I thought, "Life, you are a-okay."

Birds in the U.S. would never do this. (Photo by Dan "Bird Poop Man" O'Rourke)

Human nature in the 21st century is to use the internet to ensure that, whatever you're doing, it appears to social media followers to be waaaaay better than it actually is. If you and I are e-friends, odds are that you only see photos of my family doing interesting things on pretty beaches or deep in humid rain forests. We are lucky to get to see and live in far-flung places that many don't get to experience. Lucky duckies.

That said, your life is waaaaay better than mine in a lot of important ways. That's because, while living overseas has an array of amazing perks that you're forced to behold via social media, photos can't really do justice to the downsides. And when they can, I'm not thinking to pull out the camera when, for example, the parking lot policeman at El Salvador's version of Costco is forcing me to re-park my minivan three times to ensure that I am perfectly within the white lines -- despite the fact that it's 8:30 pm and the parking lot is 20% full.

Here are some more ways my awesome expatriate lifestyle blows worse than your pleasant domestic one:

-- When I am taking a shower and I have the sensation there is an electric current running through my body, which there is, because the bedouin electrician failed to ground the electric box in the bathroom, so the water is charged.

-- When I turn on the bedroom light and it explodes and glass projectiles fly everywhere.

-- When I am about to order a Quarter Pounder meal at McDonald's but the cashier stops me in mid-order and says, "I'm sorry, but we'll have to finish your order in 30 minutes when the government-mandated prayer time has concluded."

-- When the policeman who just pulled me over for driving at precisely the speed limit won't give me back my ID card unless I pay a bribe or, alternatively, spend an entire Saturday at a police station working through the bureaucracy to receive a formal but grudging apology, along with my ID card.

-- When all I want is a cold shower but whenever I turn on the cold water, only hot water comes out because the water cistern is on the roof, in the incessant Arabian sun, all day, every day.

-- When I'm talking to my family back in the States and the foreign security guys tapping my home phone start whispering to one another, and I say, in their language, "Guys, I can hear you," and they get embarrassed and apologize and hang up.

-- When I'm doing 55 mph on the freeway, and I see a sign that there is a speedbump ahead, so I slow way down, but there's no speedbump. Then, later, when I'm again doing 55 mph on the same freeway, I bottom out over an unmarked speedbump and my minivan nearly flies apart.

-- When there is ferry that will take me from an island to the mainland, but the government shuts down the ferry because it's windy, then, later, it changes its mind and says, "these two ferries will leave, but maybe that's all, we don't know," so everyone on the island tries to cram onto the two ferries, and we stand on the dock in the sun for three hours trying to board.

I am totally zen standing in this cattle line, because the blonde, long-haired, bearded dude beside me smells great. (Photo by Heather "Monopoly Shark" Torriente)

-- When my kids have been attending classmates' birthday parties -- classmates who are literally royalty -- and then when it's my kids' birthday they ask why we can't just rent the mall for the night like Abdulaziz's parents did. 

-- When I'm driving at 70 mph on a well-paved freeway at night in a rural area and there are no lights at all, and without warning the freeway takes a 90 degree turn.

-- When I get a hotel room for my family and after they help us drop our bags at the room they tell us to make sure we finish dinner by 8 because that's when they turn the electricity off. 

-- When I'm stopped at a stoplight and a kid starts cleaning my windshield without my asking, and I say, no, thanks, I'm good, and he keeps cleaning it, and then I drive away without paying him, because I never asked him to clean my windshield, and he flips me off (maybe this happens too in New Jersey).

-- When I'm at a friend's house for dinner, and there's a boom in the distance, and then when I walk home there are cars riddled with bullet holes a block from my apartment.

-- When I think it would nice to see my parents, but it's a 24 hour+ trip on airplanes, and I have three kids under age 5.

My experiences are pretty tame in comparison to others'. I have colleagues who have toughed out major earthquakes, had rockets fired at their apartment buildings, etc. So next time you see a photo of my amazing life, yes, it's amazing. Until I'd like to pay my mobile phone bill online like a normal American, but instead I have to physically go into the store and wait for 45 minutes to pay my bill like it's 1990 or something. It helps us maintain perspective.

Oh Man, Look At Those Cavemen Go (or, "Hands Off My Lycra")

A couple months ago I bought a bike. I thought maybe I should mix in some cross-training with my running, you know? The cavemen ran all the time and look what happened to them. Small brains and shin splints. That's not how I want to end up. I want my brain to be huuuuuge. So I bought a bike. Here's a picture of it.

Don't worry, I removed those lame reflectors soon after purchase. I don't need cars swerving around me like I'm some kind of weakling.

You can see that it looks like it goes super fast, which it does. Also, you can see how it looks like it has blue accents, which it does. I bought color coordinated tight lycra to wear with my fast bike. I admit that I've spent much of the past 35 years mocking guys in super tight lycra riding road bikes. But one thing about me is that I'm perfectly cool with changing my position to match everyone else's. I tell my kids, I tell them: "Don't just go along with crowd, guys. Unless the crowd is doing something awesome, then go along with it." So the guys at work all wear tight clothes and ride road bikes, so I went to a bike shop and I'm like, "What have you got that is lycra and super tight." And they were all, "Here, we have this." And I go, "I'll take two."

It was easy to decide which brand of bike to buy. When I was in eighth grade my parents bought me a Giant mountain bike. It was called Awesome, which was kind of a dumb marketing decision, because teens of the 90s wanted depressing, slacker products, so mountain bikes called Blah or Drab or Meh would've been more appropriate than something called Awesome. Still, the bike was neat, so I put an indy radio station sticker over the part of the bike that said Awesome.

I must've rode that bike a solid four or five times. I remember riding it up this hill by my house and getting really tired. So I went home and played computer games for several weeks thereafter. Then that summer my dad bought himself a mountain so we could bond while biking. We had Mom drop us off at the top of Larch Mountain one time, then we rode downhill in the rain all the way home. I think I fell once, and I think it hurt. When we got home, I played computer games for several more weeks, and Dad went downstairs and watched NASCAR racing until Thanksgiving. So, with these positive memories, it was clear that I needed a Giant bike.

Fortunately, this bike is just called Giant SCR, which I can deal with, unlike my old bike called Giant Awesome, which I can't. I think my mom still has the Awesome hanging upside down from some hooks in the garage. I think once when I said, "Really, you ought to get rid of that bike," she said, "But maybe your kids will want to ride it when they're older." I laughed at her then, because riding a bike called Awesome is just as loser-ly today as it was 20 years ago, but now I'm thinking maybe my son would ride it. And the reason I think that is that the embassy had a kids' triathlon a few months back, and on the cycling leg Halen rode his sister's purple bike, that has a picture of a heavily made up blonde woman on it, along with words saying, "Strike a pose, there's nothing to it." Like it didn't bother Halen at all, and he ended up passing almost everyone on that stupid bike and taking second. So maybe riding an Awesome wouldn't be a thing for him. 

I'll tell you what though, dressing up in super tight, color-coordinated lycra and riding my sweet action road bike isn't a thing for me anymore. What can I say, I was Awesome back in the day and I'm still Awesome now. And my brain is huuuuuuge.

Race Weekend, Part 2: Weird Uncle Jorge

I was kind of surprised at the volume of unwashed American zen-seekers hanging out on Ometepe Island. I saw a lot of dredlocks, saw a lot of bras, smelt a lot of B.O. Sort of like Woodstock '94, not that I was there. My mom was like, "No way, you're not going, you're not even close to cool enough." I was like, "Mah-uhm! I'm fifteen, I can make my own good decisions now. Also, I just spent my allowance on a toy gun shaped like the Starship Enterprise that shoots foam discs. Can you give more money because I want a fudge pop from the corner store."

These kids didn't have B.O., so I took pictures of them. I don't take pictures of people with B.O. Reduces the lifespan of your camera. We were kicking it on the dock, watching the sun go down. I was taking photos of a stupid heron, hoping something cooler would happen. Then these little kids started jumping off this docked ferry, and I was like, "Schweet, I like it when people exercise poor judgment and it benefits me."

The benefit of kind of having vacation-induced insomnia is that I get bored of lying awake in bed, so I eventually just get up and grab my camera and walk around. I walked around for awhile but didn't really see anything that interesting. Then the sun came up and people started bustling around town, and I spotted this guy riding a cart pulled by two yoked cows coming down the street. I was like, "Schweet, I like it when people haven't yet joined the 20th century and it benefits me." So I sat on the sidewalk and shot as the cows lumbered right past me. I was happy that the guy struck this Marvel superhero pose at just the right moment.

Probably the best thing about Moyogalpa is this hulking billboard of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. It doesn't face town; rather, it faces out into the lake, so that every arriving boat or ferry can enjoy that mustache as they approach. I would be a socialist too if it meant getting to run my fingers over that mustache. That kid at the top of the billboard is thinking, "How can I get down there to touch that 'stache?"

We spent some time at Ojo de Agua. It's a big natural spring that feeds a big pool, and it's an incredible blue color, like the color of whoever Elton John was singing about in that song "Blue Eyes." Probably he was singing about Daniel Ortega. I didn't feel all that inspired to take pictures for most of the day, because mostly there were mostly only foreigners zenning out in the water, and I was like, I didn't come all this way to take pictures of trustafarians from the Upper West Side trying to grow facial hair, you know? But later in the afternoon the locals descended, which seemed a lot more authentic, so I joined them. By the time I got this shot, I'd been hanging around for ten or fifteen minutes, and all the kids were like, "This guy is weird, but he's been here so long he's like our weird Uncle Jorge." Then it was like I was part of the family -- the part that gets ignored and that no one shares their churrasco with, but still part of the family.

Next time I promise I'll actually write about the race. And by "promise," I mean it like public figures mean "promise": if it strikes my fancy.

Race Weekend, Part 1: Sometimes I Get Madonna Songs Stuck In My Head

There was this Madonna song called "La Isla Bonita" that used to be on the radio when I was little. It was about shirtless guys and alcohol, so we listened to it a lot at my house. It's kind of a cool song if you like synthesizers and sweet nothings whispered in Spanish. I like both of those things, and also Whiskas. But most of all I like it when those three things happen at the same time.

Last weekend, I went with some good friends to run a race on Isla Ometepe, an island on Lake Nicaragua. The race was pretty fun, but so was the boat you have to take to get to the island. The whole way out there I had that Madonna song stuck in my head. There are worse things to have stuck in your head, like arrows.

The boat was called "Karen Maria" and it mostly floated. I have long felt that Karen Maria is a solid name for both a boat and a lady that makes above average taco meat.

This is the Karen Maria. That blue cylinder on the roof was filled with shark chum that you can throw into the water if the boat comes under attack by bull sharks. The chum distracts them. It is a little known fact that bull sharks abound in Lake Nicaragua. Bull sharks only do two things: eat your children and swim around thinking about eating your children. I read that in 3-2-1 Contact when I was little.

Most people on the Karen Maria were tired, like this guy. Here he is thinking, "I can't get wifi out here on Lake Nicaragua because the bull sharks are eating it all, so I might as well try to sleep."

These two youngsters, however, loved each other so much that they couldn't sleep. While everyone around snoozed or scowled glumly at the creaking blue timbers of the Karen Maria, these two laughed gaily, clearly thinking of synthesizers, sweet nothings whispered in Spanish, and Whiskas.

Passengers on the Karen Maria rode in style, but they couldn't go poo. This is the boat's only bathroom, and it's only for going pee. If you have to go poo, you have to go in the water and hope that you're not your children, or else the bull sharks will eat you.

Later, after we docked on Ometepe, our sweet young couple didn't want to leave the Karen Maria, because why would you want to leave unless you needed to poo? They did not need to poo. I glanced over at them and thought of that Madonna song -- not the one about poo -- but the one about pretty islands and sun blindness: beautiful faces, no cares in this world, where a girl loves a boy and a boy loves a girl. The Karen Maria rocked gently and the bull sharks swam gracefully beneath us, A Spanish lullaby. The kind with Whiskas. Yum.

The Mayan Artifact I Gave My Wife For Her Birthday Is NOT, In Reality, a Literal Pile of Garbage (or, "Except It Kind of Is")

January is a big month for our family, because both Shannon and Savannah have their birthdays in January. So does Paul Revere, but he is dead, and I don't see the point of celebrating dead people's birthdays (except Freddie Mercury -- so glad we get a three-day weekend every September to celebrate his b-day). 

Birthday girls! And that little person who insists on standing close to the donuts.

For the girls' birthdays this year, we went to a big lake in the caldera of a volcano. I am not trying to brag, but I have been to a lot of lakes in the calderas of volcanos. Here, I will count them off for you: 1) Crater Lake in Oregon; 2) Laguna de Apoyo in Nicaragua; 3) Lago Coatepeque in El Salvador. When I was in high school, I didn't even know there were three calderas in the whole world, let alone that I would visit them. Also, I didn't know what a caldera was, except maybe a Blue Oyster Cult song. So we went to this lake in the caldera of a volcano, and it was pretty fun. The best part was probably when I watched somebody else teach my son to fish. I was like, "Oh wow, thank goodness someone is taking care of that because I loathe fishing." This deep repugnance I feel toward fishing comes from when I was little and my dad took me fishing and after a half-day day of sitting there, gripping a pole, staring at each other, I concluded, "Dad, I love you, but this is retarded."

Savannah and Shannon had a great birthday. For her birthday, Shannon got to do whatever she wanted, so we went to this Mayan ruin site called Tazumal, which is kind of hard to find because you have to go to this sort of rundown little town, turn off the highway where there's no sign, drive to the cemetery, ask a fat guy working on his truck where Tazumal is, and then turn down a side street. And then there it is. But it's closed on Mondays, and Shannon's birthday was on a Monday, so that was pretty awesome. To make sure it wasn't a wasted trip, we took home some "Mayan artifacts" that were piled on the sidewalk outside the fence. The Mayan artifacts were NOT, in reality, just pieces of flower pots that the old lady across the street dropped earlier that morning because she has the shakes. It was a pretty great day. Fishing and a pocketful of garbage. Happy birthday, girls!

The Heady Scent of Fresh Paperbacks (or, "Ugh. Stop Buying Me Things Besides Video Games")

For Christmas, Halen got five fat books. He liked them. I could tell by how he looked like he wanted to spit on them, but didn't. He further signaled his appreciation by not hurling them at me, but rather tossing them aside very respectfully, while honoring me by mumbling, instead of shouting, "Any video games under this tree?"

"Ugh. Why do you keep getting me things besides video games." (Costa del Sol, El Salvador; Jan 2016)

I gathered Halen's paperback books and I leafed through them. Just to, you know, see if all the words were there. They smelled amazing, that earthy scent of crisp pages and pristine ink. I hadn't leafed through a brand new paperback in a long time; I buy all my books used online, so when I leaf through them I smell the stale cigarette smoke from Darren Smigsden's house in Lancaster, Ohio where he puffs on Camels while watching The Amazing Race in sagging Cleveland Browns sweats, smoke lazily rising from between his yellowing teeth into a drunken halo around his matted, unkempt hair, his cigarette ashing into a tray that for months shared a scuffed coffee table with the book I now own, which Darren bought for a night-school course seven years ago and read only once while slurping down a stale egg sandwich, the crumbs of which still rest in the crack between pages 12 and 13. That's how my books smell.

But the smell of Halen's new paperbacks reminds me of 1991. I was a real winner in those days. My peers were going to the movies to see Boyz N the Hood, calling girls on the phone, and wishing they could grow Dennis Eckersley mustaches. Equally unable to grow facial hair and less popular with the ladies, I would walk down to Clint's Book Store after school and stand in the cramped aisles of the tiny, windowless shop browsing the Dragonlance books, inhaling that beautiful smell of fresh paperbacks and thinking how I wished you could play 1-person D&D, since having friends was pretty hard when you were prepubescent Abu Halen. Every Saturday I'd fork over my allowance to Clint for a couple of 400-page fantasy paperbacks, then park it on the living couch all week to knock them out by Saturday -- payday. What can I say -- I've been living paycheck to paycheck since I was 12. That's just how I roll. Me and alcoholics, that's how we roll.

I Don't Want to Go to the Slammer Again (and Other Things You Might Say in El Salvador on NYE)

I will be honest with you. New Year's Eve in El Salvador is not my favorite thing. Not like Mario Kart 8, which is my favorite thing. I will be honest with you again: I don't really care for New Year's Eve in any country, except maybe Saudi Arabia, where what you do on NYE is stare angrily at the world and wish it would explode (except you have the antidote to exploding).

The niiiiice side of the new year in El Salvador. (Costa del Sol, El Salvador; 1 January 2016)

I love El Salvador. Let me throw that out there. Completely and utterly love it. Just not on NYE, cuz FIREWORKS. Ugh. No one gets that fireworks are the exact same thing as lighting a bunch of 20 dollar bills on fire and throwing them in the air. Except burning money is better, because it's quieter.

There was one year when my dad bought a bunch of illegal fireworks -- the kind that are like surface-to-air missiles -- in Wyoming and smuggled them into Oregon, and we shot them off in the parking lot of the church down the street. Then the cops came and we had to hide in the bushes. And at first I was like, "I've never done anything so cool," but after a few minutes of my dad saying things like, "Shhh. Stop breathing, I don't want to go to the slammer again," I started to think maybe the high wasn't worth the pain. And I've thought fireworks were dumb ever since.

And believe you me, El Salvador does fireworks on NYE. I was out on the highway doing highway speed and someone chucked a cherry bomb out onto the highway and it blew up under my car and I almost wrecked, because, bomb under my car at 55 mph. Later, I was trying to sleep at 3 am. I didn't actually see the fireworks outside my house, but I am pretty sure they were blowing up Daihatsus and medium-sized sno-cone stands and starter houses. That's what it sounded like. Through my white noise maker, the pillow over my head, and the Jesus & Mary Chain playing through ear-fitting earbuds. I'm cool with it though. I am a guest in this country and appreciate the diverse ways that different cultures express celebratory feelings.

On Islam (and, Also, a Little Bit On Don Johnson)

I hope you don't mind if I recycle an old blog post. The story takes place on the shores of the Red Sea in the run-down but oddly charming Old City of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It's a story about Islam. I offer no strong opinions or statistics or analysis. I hope the absence of rigor can be forgiven. I have studied Islam for nearly 15 years now, seated on a folding chair next to a zealous Palestinian in a UN office in Damascus, across the desk from a bearded Saudi cleric in Arabia, from countless books written from every academic angle. I've lived among Muslims for years -- Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus, Amman, Aqaba, Jerusalem, Jeddah, Riyadh, Muscat. As such, I claim no expertise, but I suppose I have some measure of authority to present compelling arguments defending Islam. But nah. Islam is more vast and confusing and wonderful than any commentator can portray. Instead of an argument, here's a simple story from a regular weeknight in heart of Islam.

Missionaries of Islam (w/ young, Saudi Don Johnson). (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Aug 2013)

August 23, 2013... Me and Savannah are on a daddy-daughter date to Jeddah's old city, al-Balad. Mostly it is crumbling, dilapidated buildings and very pungent odors, but it's interesting and authentic and probably cheaper than ice cream and I like taking pictures there. Savannah carries my tripod. In my view, daddy-daughter dates are simply good opportunities for me to pursue my hobbies with a servant to carry my stuff.

We pad along a sandy street for about a half-block before a trio of Saudi teens stop to talk. After pleasantries, they invite us to become Muslim, which we politely decline, although I think about it more than I usually do because one of the kids looks like what Don Johnson would've looked like when he was a teenager, if Don Johnson had been Saudi.

Later, as we edge around a large puddle laced with raw sewage, Savannah notes that we are invited to convert to Islam quite a bit here in Jeddah. Why is that? she asks.

(Al-Baydha, Saudi Arabia; Jun 2013)

Well, I tell Savannah, I suppose they are happy being Muslim, and they think that maybe we'd be happy being Muslim too. As a Mormon, I feel like I have the least business of anyone in getting annoyed when somebody wants to talk to me about their faith. I spent two years of my life sharing my faith with strangers because I believe it makes both me and others better -- the least I can do is teach my daughter to permit others the same latitude to share their beliefs with us.

Later, me and Savannah pass by a working class Pakistani man sitting on the bed of a pickup. He strikes up a conversation with us, and we visit for awhile. He must see a bead of sweat trickling through my eyebrow, because he asks if we're thirsty. No, no, I say. We're heading home soon, we're fine, thanks. But he rises anyhow and pulls a couple riyals from his pocket. "Wait," he commands, and strides off down the narrow street. "No! No!" I call after him. I know what he's doing and I'm embarrassed about it. But you can't defuse Muslim hospitality. You just can't. And so he returns in a few minutes with a plastic bag filled with cold cans of pop and cold bottles of water. I thank him profusely and we visit for awhile longer before parting at the call to sunset prayer.

On our way back home Savannah is sipping her sweet soda in the back seat. She's watching the dusty streets roll past her window, the mustached men on the curb come and go. "Muslims are nice," she says to no one in particular. Without the mess of pride and ethnocentrism and money and bias, sometimes kids just see it all clearly and get it right.

Proof that there are Muslims of all political persuasions. This precious family bravely hung that poster in their house (inside where no one could see it) in the early months after the US-led invasion of Iraq (full disclosure: these guys were of Kurdish extraction). (Damascus, Syria; 2003)

We All Have Our Roles (or "I Can't Understand Why We're Not Making Out Right Now")

We all have our roles. On a futbol team, not everyone can be a striker. If everyone were a striker, who would stand utterly alone at the other end of the field, crouching and picking dandelions and guarding the goal like a total and complete loser? In a symphony, not everyone can play the sexy violin. Somebody has be a schmuck and play the stupid oboe, because if no one played the oboe in the symphony, how would listeners not be able to hear the oboe at all and thus not be able to appreciate the fact that the oboe adds nothing to anything anywhere in the universe, except for it looks like a hookah pipe?

I know that that baby backpack is probably heavy, and it sucks that she's pulling your hair, but you'll have to deal with it because I am capturing memories. (Pella, Jordan; Mar 2008)

I would love to join you but I am busy standing here twirling dials so that this memory is properly exposed. (Rio Dulce, Guatemala; Nov 2015)

That looks really hard fixing that kid's hair, and I would like to help, but later you will thank me for backing up further to get more wildflowers in the shot. (Wadi al-Sir, Jordan; Apr 2009)

That goat might be rabid but the kid will have to take her chances because shots like this don't grow on trees. (Wadi Shab, Oman; Apr 2014)

My role is to watch Shannon be an awesome parent, and to take pictures of her being an awesome parent. She is always pointing out something interesting to the kids. An intricate fungus. An iridescent insect. An unexpected color. My role is to follow close behind with the camera, try not to say "Durrrrr," too loud, and, for pete's sake, get a haircut.

Shannon has been curious and observant for as long as I can remember. On our honeymoon we walked along the beach and she kept pointing out little creatures in the tidal pools and glittering rocks in the sand. "Nice, great, they're rocks," I would say. "Look, I can't understand why we're not making out right now."

When we lived in Syria we went to the national museum, which was awash in amazing Mesopotamian artifacts. Shannon traced each one lovingly with her eyes from top to bottom and side to side. I hadn't yet discovered photography, so let me tell you, I got super bored. Fortunately, I had matured a little by then since our newlywed days. "Very interesting rocks, sweetheart," I would say. "Might I propose we go somewhere and make out?"

Buying a sweet camera was one of the great coups of my life. First, I got to spend a bunch of money on a fun toy. Second, taking pictures gave me something to do while Shannon stared at dirt. Third, when we vacationed or day-tripped, Shannon had to carry everything and tend to the kids because, as I believe I once artfully phrased it, "Look, I can't catalogue the kids' precious moments if they're hanging all over me. I mean, if you want their childhood lost forever, that's cool with me, I'll carry them around. Whatevs."

But it never phased Shannon. She's been exciting our chidren's sense of wonder for over a decade now, effortlessly citing Roman history to them, explaining how lightning works, pointing out Nabatean ruins, identifying howler monkeys by their call. She's a pro at just about everything. As for me, well, I just click the shutter and make sure we never forget the tiny, treasured moments.

Wait, Do I Know You? (and Other Things You Might Say to Dead Relatives)

I am awake at 4:30 on a Monday morning in León. Lion. Nicaragua's lion, heart of revolution, where my grandfather was born in 1903, nine months before Orville Wright flew an airplane at Kittyhawk.

I dress in the dark, find my camera, slip out into the heavy heat of night. The town is the color of ink, quiet and still save a bar on the corner with a stereo playing.

6:00 a.m. procession through the empty streets in honor of the Virgin Mary. (León, Nicaragua; Sep 2015)

I was my grandfather's first grandson. He died in 1982, a few months before I turned three. I have no memories of the little white haired man with bronze skin who proudly smiles from an old photo of us. I'm fat-cheeked and oblivious in his lap. My cheeks have thinned out over the past 35 years, but I'm still oblivious to Grandpa. Can't recall his voice, mannerisms. How he smelled. The color of his eyes.

As I shuffle past the bar, I hear the guitar solo from "Comfortably Numb" wafting from the cracked door. Pink Floyd. I know that song, that piercing string bend, rich and empty at the same time. Hopefully melancholy. Maybe Grandpa knew it too. But probably not. Seventy-five year old Nicaraguan guys probably didn't listen to Floyd in 1979. But maybe. I choose to hold onto the maybe, because that would mean that maybe the grandpa I didn't know is somehow in the space between the notes, that maybe he's not all gone.

I sit on a park bench beneath the big navy blue sky. The security guard slumps in his chair, fast asleep, hat askew. An old woman sweeps the walkway with a clump of straw she bundled with twine. 

I wonder where Grandpa lived. What he did every day. If he ever walked these streets before dawn. If our shadows look a little bit the same. If he would recognize me if time and space had a seizure and spit him out beside this bench on this ordinary Monday morning in the brightening dawn, if he might say, Wait, do I know you? I wonder if Grandpa knows I'm there, in the town he was born in. Wherever he is. Maybe it makes him smile, if that's something angels do.