Sunday, December 23, 2007

making up for lost time, before its even lost

Somewhere between Baltimore and Chicago today, I realized something about myself:

I tend to live life at one hundred miles per hour.

I've spent so much time gone, that I feel a deep, pervasive need to accomplish things in my life that are important to me but otherwise notionally impossible to attain while my life is on hold.

My life here is contrary to the idealized image of a soldier returning from deployment. There is no deep sigh upon my arrival and plaintive search for somewhere dark and quiet so that I can re-adjust. Similarly, there's no bender nights of drinking. There's no "come on, I've just got back! I want to watch what I want to watch. Can't you leave me alone for a while?" This picture is not atypical... I've seen it among friends and fellow servicemen countless times.

But not me.

While gone, and aside from those things that I really do want in my own right -- like a meal that doesn't suck and a cold beer -- I think -- and I've just realized this -- that I subconsciously shoulder a heavy burden of guilt. A primary but not exclusive reason for this guilt is my daughter.

Among the others? Well... my life centers on love. The image of it. The possibility of it. The ideal of it. The promise of it. The reality of it. I have so much of it myself and I want to share it. And I want to feel it in return.

Consequently, when presented with the opportunity, I run at it at a hundred miles an hour. And it is frightening. Scary. Terrifying to the object. "Intense," as someone told me recently... "Justin, there's no other way to put it; you're intense. You have so much passion."

It is different with Madison... I breathe, a little. Because I know she'll always be there. And I'll always be there. But when I see promise in another, I frantically cling to it, squeezing and squeezing.

I think it is because I'm afraid it'll leave. Because it has. That if I don't provide so much attention and adoration in that short time I am here, I won't be able to make up for the time when I am not. And I am afraid to death of not having built sufficient margin in a relationship to otherwise compensate for my frequent, maddening absences.

So. I've learned something about myself today. I just don't know how to fix it.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

through me, my father yet lives

Today I had my daughter for the first time in many months. Because of my extraordinarily high deployment rate.

I've missed her terribly. Having had her this weekend just pains me... my heart aches to have her with me always.


In a recent conversation with my mom, I unexpectedly learned something about my father. He had only seen her once -- just for a short week -- before he passed on. Mom told me -- in one of those memories recalled as much to preserve his station in our life as to illustrate a point -- that when he'd met her, he was scared. Frightened.

At first, I could scarcely believe her. My father -- the stoic and brave -- ... scared? But I remembered. I remembered, actually, being a little irritated at what seemed my parents' reluctance... the lack of an offer to take her, alone, themselves, while I bid my time in my old stomping grounds. A chance for them to bond with her. A chance for me to taste just a bit of carefree freedom.

It was forgotten.

But Mom, telling me that Dad was scared, reminded me. Evidently, he confided in her that he'd never been so intimidated in his life. This from a man that spent his entire adult life on the edge of danger protecting other people. As a Sailor. As a cop. As a correctional officer. A three year old? Scared him?

He told Mom that he was abjectly afraid of disappointing her. My Madison. Of doing or saying or not doing or not saying something that would upset her. Because she was so precious. So precocious. So loving. So goddamned smart.

It's funny, that. My dad, the Dad. Afraid of a little girl.

When my mom told me this, a part of the inside-me broke a little. Because... in time... I'm sure Dad would have grown stronger. And would have grown more comfortable with her. And would have shared the myriad... the unimaginable and unquantifiable love and wisdom... and... he would have been wrapped around her little finger, I'm sure.

Dad's gone now, of course. He'll never get the chance. Neither will she.

It's up to me, then, to fill his void.

Earlier tonight, she spoke with my Mom: "Grandma." She later told me that she hardly remembers what Grandma looks like.

Another part of me broke a little when I realized that at least Mom's around to answer the phone.

Dad? I can only hope he answers prayers.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Home Again

Home for the Holidays... I've made my sweet escape.

Double entendres for everyone!

I am happy.


Friday, November 30, 2007

n.ever a.gain v.olunteer y.ourself

While my brothers-in-blog were contemplating the loss of their pimp-a-rific mustaches, I was contemplating the continued forfeiture of my freedom.

I re-enlisted today for an additional three years, bringing me to 17 total years of service. The ceremony was performed while I was piloting our plane over the Horn of Africa.


*Ass-Cancer = Army.

p.s. And to a certain very special Project Manager / Office bitch: I'll be home before we know it. I tore a ring today, by the way.

Friday, November 16, 2007

i could be the next hemingway

Evidence against:

I do not write particularly well.
That which I do write is not "characterized by economy" or "understatement."
I possess neither a gnarly beard nor mats of gnarly chest hair.
I do not have any cats.
I have never been to Cuba.
I dislike Paris.
I have not been awarded a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize.

Evidence in support:

A cold beer, a hot cappuccino and a good novel at sunset in Africa.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


I am sad, shuttered. Distant. Removed. Separated.

It is time to escape again.

Instantly, mottled grey and khaki sweeps beneath me. Knees aching, my mind swimming. Her voice compels me further, but my breathing is labored.

A cloud of choking fog and soot parts as I charge it, but it's always there. Ahead of me. I will myself further.

For a moment, there is silence. Thoughts crash at me. A choir of doubt and sadness and longing echoes against the chamber walls of my mind. I alone listen. I alone can hear. It sounds like a dirge: unfair.

I ask to be loved but I am never there to return it. I am perpetually absent.

Absent: this refrain repeating itself again and again, in time with the swoosh-swoosh of blood against my eardrums.

Suddenly... erased. It is pushed aside; gone again, if only for noise. It waits just beyond the edge, though.

A moist, acrid wind pushes against me; I draw my face down. Before me and behind, I notice half-crescent dimples in soft gravel. They mark my path.

Every three feet or so, there is evidence of where I have been, and where I am going.

I make the last turn, and I remember being here before. I am brought to the same place I'd just departed. I am tricked. I am tricking myself.

Trapped in a circle.

I'm done now. Panting. Seated outside my tent beneath sickly yellow light. My elbows rest atop my knees. I realize nothing has changed. I am not escaping.

A smile cracks. Beneath me, little drops collect and turn the grey cement black. It feels like I went somewhere. Like I tried.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

the culture of suck

"The best morale exists when you never hear the word mentioned. When you hear a lot of talk about it, it's usually lousy." -
-- Dwight D. Eisenhower

"Please taste this and let me know what you think. I'd like to serve it to the men."

"What is it?" asked Yossarian, and took a bite.

"Chocolate-covered cotton."

"This stuff is better than cotton candy, really it is. It's made out of real cotton. Yossarian, you've got to help me make the men eat it. Egyptian cotton is the finest cotton in the world."

"But it's indigestible," Yossarian emphasized. "It will make them sick, don't you understand? Why don't you try living on it yourself if you don't believe me."

"I did try," admitted Milo gloomily. "And it made me sick."


I am deployed to the Horn of Africa. There is a lot to complain about.

Over fourteen years, I have been deployed all over the Middle East. There has always been a lot to complain about.

But where does it end? When are we -- the boys and girls of your American military -- happy?


Let me give you a recent example:
I have been tentatively promised AAA batteries by an in-camp hook-up, which I need for my GPS watch and are NOT FUCKING AVAILABLE HERE... why, you ask? A good question. The story:

Me. In the "Exchange." Hey, look, I can buy a FUCKING 32" FLATSCREEN TV. That's neat. For a war zone and all. Man, I need batteries. Hey, where are the batteries? No, really, where the FUCK are the batteries? ANY FUCKING batteries? AA, C, D, AAA, 9-volt? Anything, you FUCKING RETARDS? What? You don't have a SINGLE FUCKING BATTERY? How is that possible, you ignorant smiling motherfucker? You must not be understanding me. I'm going to speak to the only American in here. He must be the manager. Oh, look, he is! And he called me, "Chief." This should work out, after all. Hey, Mr. Manager, how come I can't find any batteries? Umm, sorry Chief, it's because we don't have any. How in the fuck is that possible, Mr. Manager? Well, we get cases every month, but the minute they come in, the women on the Camp come in and buy them all up. WHAT? Why the fuck would they.....ooooooohhhhhhhhh. GOD DAMN IT. VIBRATORS SUCK.
  • We have peanut-butter, but no jelly.
  • We have air conditioning, but it fails.
  • We have wildlife, but it is the kind that kills you.
  • We have yogurt, but no spoons.
  • We have juice, but it's not filled in the magic little dispensing thingies until 10 minutes before the chow hall closes.
  • We have "Containerized Living Units" but less than half of them have toilets.
  • We have water heaters for our showers and 60" widescreen flatpanel televisions in the chow hall but neither are not connected to power.
  • We have an oven on the plane to make nifty little heated meals, but we have no aluminum foil.
  • We have shampoo, but no conditioner.
  • Alternatively, we have conditioner, but no shampoo.
  • We have body wash, but no pouffs.
  • We have razors, but the blades only fit the razors we don't have.
  • We have a chow hall, but (sometimes) it has no roof.
  • We have mosquito netting, but no cord with which to hang it.
  • We have Maxim, but no Economist.
  • We (evidently) have vibrators, and some of us have batteries.
And yet we laugh. As recent as only a few years ago, the prospect of posting a blog while in a combat zone was ridiculous; our only connection to the Real World was official message traffic. We prayed for "FamGrams" -- a sort of pseudo-telegram limited to 40 words. Food came out of a brown plastic bag... and among the variety, there were the "Three Fingers of Death."

We're never satisfied, because something is always dicked-up. Complaining establishes a lowest-common denominator. It actually works, I think, to establish a sense of camaraderie. An esprit-de-corps (we have it worse than everyone else, right?)

And kind of like in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, it is sometimes necessary to complain because it reminds us we're alive.*

Last night, I may not have had batteries for my watch (and there may have been an annoying multi-volt chorus coming from the female-only tents), but I got to call someone wonderful who is very, very important to me. My night and day and week and even deployment has been made.

Wouldn't have happened, yesteryear.

Perhaps tomorrow, though, we'll have aluminum foil. Cotton balls -- even when covered with chocolate -- taste like shit.

*Alive (recently overheard):
"Flight station, I need a right turn to 250."
"Flight station, turn right to 250."
"Flight station from Nav, I need a right turn to 250."
"I'd love to, Nav, but right now I'm busy making sure we don't stall."
Me: "What?!? Is there suddenly a 300-knot headwind? Why are we just now hearing about this?"

Saturday, November 3, 2007

stripper pole father

When my precious daughter was but still a growing and kicking zygote pushing at the soft boundaries of her mommy's belly, I was already preparing to be the best father I could.

I remember, then, reading a short story that profoundly affected me; its lesson has since so deeply colored my parenting that it has since become second nature.
A proud father is playing in the surf with his children, a young daughter and her brother. They are of similar age, perhaps only a year or so apart. All of them are facing the open ocean, and each child is gripping one of Daddy's hands as they kick and giggle at the swirling green water.

Suddenly, a wave somewhat larger than the others approaches, and without thinking, the father raises his daughter up and out of the water, clutching her to his hip. Meanwhile, he strengthens his grip on her brother so that he might not be swept away.
What has Dad unconsciously taught his children?
  • Girls are not strong enough to face the same adversity as boys.
  • Girls should expect, as a matter of nature, that boys will rescue them in the face of challenge.
  • Boys must be strong and must depend on themselves.
I disagree. Though it is unquestionably my hope that my Madison builds relationships in her life in which she can depend on another's strength and support -- not the least of which mine -- I am forever adamant that she learns she is capable of facing and conquering the same challenges as anyone else, even boys. That... just because she's a girl, does not mean that she can't win and accomplish and overcome... and that she doesn't need a boy to help her.

It is for this reason that I may --to the casual observer -- seem the dispassionate and unconcerned Dad. At the park, she is encouraged to climb the same rock wall as her boy counterparts. Conversely, I routinely witness other parents rushing over to their daughters and propping and pushing them up by their little butts, whereas with their sons they expect them to get up to the top all by themselves.

Mind you, Madison knows I'll be there, and that I'll stand at the bottom to catch her if she falls, but the assistance she'll get from Daddy is going to be in the form of encouragement: Come on, sweetheart, you can do it.

These days, that little monkey routinely beats me to the top.

Two digressions:
I remember a lovely summer evening in Georgia. All the parents were gathered on the porch and front lawn of Danny's house, talking as parents and neighbors do, enjoying sweet tea and idle banter. All of the neighborhood kids were playing together; Madison and her best friend were madly racing those God-forsaken motorized Hot Wheels cars.

My neighbor, with whom over the years I had developed a close kinship, asked me in a moment of reflection: "Justin, do you ever sit and watch Maddie and wonder what she'll be when she grows up? What do you want her to be?"

To which, completely without thinking, I replied, "Honestly, I don't care what she becomes. It sounds cliche, but all I want is her happiness. Whatever she wants. If I had to guess, though... let's see... she is very strong, very independent. She is unbelievably smart. She routinely kicks your son's lily-white ass. For all I know, she'll grow up to be the first lesbian President of the United States."

My neighbor recoiled in horror: he had once been a Baptist seminary student, and he was died-in-the-wool conservative Georgian besides... I had predicted that she'd be gay?
Shortly before leaving the States for the deployment I'm currently on, I took Madison to a local park in Gaithersburg. She was spinning around and around and around on one of those climbing poles. A stranger to my right on the bench turned to me and said, "She's pretty good at that!" To which I said, "She's learning how to pay for college."

In summary, I may be constantly thinking about the lessons I'm teaching my daughter -- consciously and subconsciously -- but I still have a sense of humor about it. And if she grows up to be the first former-stripper, lesbian candidate for President... well, at least I won't have had to answer the door with a shotgun in the teen years. Plus, she'd likely have hot friends.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

alcohol-fueled dromedary death

Group discipline in the military is nicely summarized with the following maxim:

"The majority shall be punished for the crimes of the minority."

Alternatively: "You are only as stupid as the stupidest asshat among you."

Recently, I mentioned the Bitter End. It is a beer-filled oasis to which we warfighters repair when operations and sleep and our general tolerance for other people* is sufficient enough to warrant a couple cold Tuskers and maybe a round of darts.

The Bitter End (and its sister cantina mantina**) is closed.


Because some fucktard violated the rules*** and had a few dozen too many while patronizing the mantina, then promptly left our camp driving an (ubiquitous) Land Cruiser, and ran into a camel****, killing it.

No more Tusker.

* Other people: Fugly personality-void Frog Hogs notwithstanding.
* Mantina: So-called because of its gender imbalance. Some have referred to it as "Dry Sausage Soup."
*** Rules: Daily consumption is limited to three drinks.
**** Camel: "There is no other community in the world where the camel plays such a pivotal role in the local community and culture as in the Somali community." (source)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

to hell with yellow ribbons, we want Halo

Borne from the ashes of bad taste, I present you a reformed blogger.

For those with an RSS feed or what have you, you may have noticed, some days ago, a posting on Benazir Bhutto's return to Pakistan after years in exile. You may also have noticed that it was quickly deleted.

This is because I am capable of realizing when I'm terribly, terribly wrong... as was (fortunately) pointed out to me by a handful of people whom I deeply respect.

You see, in a rather macabre brainstorming session, I and some of my crewmates decided on creating the World's First Benazir Bhutto Death Pool; it satiated our need for dark and cynical humor and it provided us an opportunity to profit (in the event she did not perish before the New Year) by making off with a brand-new XBox 360.

Well, as I've said... it was deleted in short order. I apologized for my terrible taste and thanked those that protested (even those that were reluctant to do so.) However, in all honesty, I forgot about the Donate Now button I had scripted into my blog's sidebar.

Several kind souls over the last week or so reminded me it was there by actually clicking on it and coughing-up hard-earned cash.

Though it was accurately described as "Donate $1 towards an XBox for my unit", it invariably led the charitable to a payment screen that inaccurately labeled the process as "Benazir's Death Pool."

Notably, one loving reader actually went through the hell that must have been hacking the process and discovered a way to donate more than the solitary dollar I'd been asking for.

So, here's the deal. Firstly, I've repaired the link so that it no longer dredges-up the title of the horrible idea that was the Death Pool. Secondly, I've modified it so that it no longer limits the kind soul to a single dollar's donation.

Now then. I am very reluctant to accept charity (even on behalf of my unit, and even despite the "Support the Troops" sort of vibe it has...) but I have decided to honor of both those people that aptly told me what an asshat idea the Death Pool was as well as those that have already donated. Consequently, I will leave the button up but this will be the last time I mention it.

It's purpose, if I haven't been clear: to donate towards the purchase of a Microsoft XBox 360 for my unit*. Here's the kicker, though: I will match every dollar donated until the Box's cost has been met (at which point, I'll kill the button.) Importantly, no one in the unit will know... they'll just get a Box and be told that good friends of mine back in D.C. and around the world donated towards its purchase. I think I'll put up some sort of bar chart or what have you, so we can track the total donations versus the goal**.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't add my spiel: there are countless better ways to spend your dollars, and there are countless better ways to Support the Troops. (A special cheers to Alex for her K-9 donations and Hanna for her care packages.) If you'd like to do something for our deployed soldiers, Sailors, airmen and Marines deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa that has real meaning and impact, visit any of the sites listed here.

There you have it. And a most sincere thank you.

*(unit): Technically, this isn't correct. I stay here in the Horn, and units roll in and roll out. I'm the continuity guy. As a result, no one particular unit will own the Xbox; it'll just be here for the guys to play with while they're deployed. Once they've gone, they also know that they'll be back. Like me.

**(goal): From AAFES (the military exchange, no sales tax!): Limited Edition Halo 3 Xbox 360 System w/Halo 3 Game Bundle = $574.95. Consequently, the goal is $287 (as I'll match $ for $.)

Friday, October 26, 2007

The World Works Against Me

I don't get men, and I don't get women.

  1. The crew with whom I'm flying currently has been here all of two weeks.
  2. The majority of this crew is married.
  3. I have been here for the majority of this year.
  4. I am single.
Here in our little corner of Hell in the Horn of Africa, we have a bar-tent that is appropriately named "The Bitter End." It is accessible only by those of us working in my field, not to the General Population (so to speak) of the broader camp "outside the wire", unless they are personally invited.

By nature of the customers (us) and its relatively exclusivity, it is very popular among the women of every service in GenPop. Consequently, it is with little surprise that one notes the Bitter End -- when opened (though irregularly) -- is chock-full of what some have derisively nicknamed as "Frog Hogs." Having been to the Bitter End is, apparently, a mark of distinction among women.

Seven minutes before the expiration of my otherwise non-descript birthday recently, I was cajoled into visiting the Bitter End for a beer or six. I had been reluctant to do so, as I needed to get up early the next morning and go for a run before our mission. Nonetheless, I succumbed to the sweet siren call of beer.

I spent the evening bullshitting and playing darts and having as best a time as I could, given the circumstances.

The guys on my crew and the other operators-in-residence, however, spent the evening joking, massaging, insulting, flirting... all in patent effort to get in some girl's pants. Any girl's pants.

Please refer to Stipulation 2. As well would it serve my argument for you to know that these same married men in drunken efforts to find a rackmate for the night also continue wearing their wedding rings... they don't even bother to hide it.


Here are my complaints, in easily-digestible bullet form:

  • I don't excuse (or tolerate, or stomach) infidelity in any form, but at only two weeks separation?
  • And what about the women who knowingly ignore their suitors' marital status?
Inescapable lessons:
  • Women have reason to distrust men.
  • Women are as complicit in this condition as are the men.
  • Men will hit on even the fugliest and wholly personality-devoid women when deployed.
  • These same women enjoy fame while deployed they can only imagine at home.
Now then. Two important Justin-factors:
  • Of the reasons for electing to divorce my wife over three years ago, prime among them was her constant fear of my infidelity (discussed here.)
  • When my subsequent love, S., broke my heart, her infidelity while I was deployed was paramount among reasons (discussed here.)
I can't win.

Does this shit happen in the Real World, too?... I wouldn't know, as I've been wearing the uniform since I was a wee-impressionable young man. I'd like to think it does, and that it's not the military culture that engenders this loathsome behavior, but... really? Xerox and The Washington Post and Maggie Moo's? Doesn't seem to fit...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

the happy kind of tears

Hi daddy I miss you. I am gowing to send you a card did you now that? Grammy made me a costume its a pupple dress I like it it also has a pupple cape with a dimend on the back of it. Call me back on your special phone. BY! I love you.


Love of my LIFE!

I miss you, too, baby. SO much. Did you know that I fly with a picture of you every day? It's one of the pictures we took when we went to the farm and made the scarecrow, Tyler. Speaking of which: do you still have him? Is he hanging out on the deck? Is he helping make the place scary for Halloween?

Boy, that's my favorite holiday, too. I wish I could be there to spend it with you, love. I miss you so much!!

Before I forget, love: can you ask Mommy to take pictures of you on Halloween and send them to me in an email? I would like that very, very much.

I love you, The World's Prettiest and Smartest Daughter.


Of course, we'll send some pictures. You're the best daddy in the whole world - especially the smartest. And you're really funny and Halloween is my almost favorite holiday. Yes, we still have Tyler and he is out on the deck making it really scary for Halloween. Mommy will take pictures of me in my dress and we'll email them to you. I love you very much.


By the way, Maddie really enjoyed High School Musical - thanks for the tickets!


Friday, October 19, 2007

Kenya and Uganda (Part Three)

This is Africa. Consequently, our flight from Nairobi to Kampala-Entebbe was delayed by over an hour.

Upon arriving in Entebbe, I was first struck by how brilliant all the colors were. How clean and cool and vibrant the buildings, the people, the landscape was! Of course, I had only recently seen The Last King of Scotland, so it was even more intriguing that I was striding across historic tarmac.

I digress. Not only is Entebbe airport historic for its placement in the film, but also
  1. Its position as the jumping-in point for journalists and UN forces during the Rwanda, Burundi and Somali conflicts, romantically detailed in books such as Emergency Sex and Zanzibar Chest;
  2. Its central role in Israel's dramatic 1976 rescue of hostage passengers on Air France flight 139.
The swift air, cooled by its transit over the deep waters of adjacent Lake Victoria, pushed me along as I made my way to the customs and immigration office. A more significant contrast could not be made between beautiful East Africa and the desiccating, arid wasteland that is the Horn. I greeted everyone I passed with an enormous, contented smile.

Despite our late arrival -- and my inability to convey this information to my planner friend back in Nairobi, I was instantly met by my guide, Lule, and our driver. They had waited. (This sort of thing doesn't happen in the U.S.)

Lule gave me a warm and strong handshake and wondered if I might like to stop, on the way to Kampala -- 40 kilometers away -- at a resort where we could share lunch? Agreed, good friend... agreed.

I and my travel partner, Alaina dined on the stunning shores of Lake Victoria. We had a brilliant, flavorful, stuffing lunch lubricated with delicious Coca Cola (served in the old glass bottles, natch) at a total cost of 12USD. For four people.

Before leaving Nairobi and upon realizing that I'd be traveling to Uganda, I asked Mr. Asudi (my travel planner) if it would be at all possible to see the Baha'i temple in Kampala. He said, "of course, anything you'd like." I was elated.
Though somewhat less-than-orthodox, I am yet a Baha'i. I've never had the opportunity to visit Haifa (where our World Center is), and my sense of Baha'i community is very fractured because of the nature of my work and lifestyle. To be serendipitously provided the opportunity to visit one of the only seven Baha'i temples in the world was incredible. I never would have imagined I'd have the chance...
Once the bill was settled, Lule told the driver in Luganda that we needed to head to Kampala -- at the center of which lied the Baha'i temple -- and in short order, for soon (due to our flight delay) the sun would set.

Alaina and I gaped at the landscape and the people as our car sped those 40 kilometers. We passed countless piki-pikis and banana markets and Catholic schools and donkey-pulled wooden carts and vitenge stores along rust-red dirt streets proudly advertising SIM cards and laundry soap.

The equatorial sun fell quickly as we made our approach. Increasingly, I worried... but felt selfish. I knew that I'd have just this one chance to see the temple, but I struggled with feeling bad about possibly missing it, given that I hadn't planned on doing so, and that I was so mesmerized by everything else that Uganda offered me... Nonetheless, we had soon pulled out of the chaotic maze that is downtown Kampala and begun ascending a clay road when I noticed this:

Baha'i Road! We must be getting close! There can't be too large a Baha'i community in Uganda, after all...

I gasped with excitement. Soon, over the canopy I spied the top of the temple. It was gorgeous, and it drew me. I pushed up against the back of the driver's seat in order to crane a better view. Slowly it became larger as we climbed the mountainside, but it was obscured by trees with increasing occasion as we approached.

We finally arrived and the driver parked our rented Toyota saloon just outside the gates to the temple's grounds. They were padlocked shut, and the guard shack was vacant. No buzzer, or bell, or phone. Immediately, I was crestfallen, but in short order I made up my mind to be appreciative of the opportunity I did have, rather than the one I did not. I left my bag and fellow travelers behind and walked around the high stone fence that surrounded the grounds, furiously snapping pictures of the temple on the mount before the sun set and blanketed the vista in darkness.

I traipsed over fallen logs and through briar patches and resettled bushes as I made my progress around the southern fence. Soon, Lule approached me and said that the locals in the neighborhood below told him that there was an open footpath to the grounds just around the corner. I laughed nervously and patted him on his shoulder, and I picked up my pace in an effort to find it quickly. Suddenly, there it was, and unceremoniously I began the walk up the hill's steep incline, drawn to the temple as my only landmark. I began breathing deeply and eventually slowed, if not for the effort of climbing then for the indescribably beauty of the landscape around me. 70 acres of the most stunning gardens spread in every direction -- like a verdant cape thrown atop a pyramid.

Lule and I arrived at the top, where a sign stood.

I was home. 7000 miles from home, yet I'd found a piece of it.

The Baha'i House of Worship and the surrounding grounds is a special and sacred place built for prayer and meditation. It is made available to people of all faiths and races.

I was, of course, disheartened to read the first rule: The Temple gates are open 8:00AM and 5:30PM including weekends. It was significantly past 5:30. I wasn't supposed to be there.

I quickly made for the last 50 meters separating me and the temple. Soon it became apparent that the temple doors were locked shut, so I frantically asked Lule and Alaina and our driver -- all of whom had mysteriously appeared -- to snap pictures for me.

In short order, a smiling Ugandan teenager approached me from the caretakers' residence. With great apology, he informed me that the grounds were closed. In turn, I expressed my most sincere appreciation for the fact, and made an attempt at excusing my trespass: that I was an American Baha'i traveling to Jinja, with only the one day in Kampala, and that my flight from Nairobi was delayed, and I just had to see the temple before the chance was forever lost. The boy expressed his understanding, still smiling. He asked me to wait for a moment, and he headed back to the residences.

I sat on the stone stairs leading to the temple, drinking in the view. One could see all of busy Kampala, in every direction. It was breathtaking.

The boy returned, with an older man in tow. The older man, I soon learned, was the director ("Bwana Direkta"). I greeted him as one Baha'i to another, "Allah'u'abha" to assure him of my benevolent intent, and he smiled and returned the favor. His first words, though, were to reiterate what the teenager had said: "I'm sorry, but the grounds are closed." I respectfully nodded, and thanked him for his trouble, adding my story -- the one I had related to the teenager. He smiled again, nodding... in his eyes, I could see a change... he reached into his pocket and removed a key. He told me I had access to the temple for as long as I'd like. He would make an exception in this case.

Praise be.

I unlocked the massive wooden doors -- of which there are nine identical sets (one to each side of the building) and sheepishly stepped inside. Despite the careful and deliberate placement of my feet, every sound was acquired and rebroadcast a thousand times within the nine-sided dome. The enormity, the gravity of it all inspired the most intense feeling of deference. I was, for the first time in my life, I felt, in the presence of something of God. I removed my hat in a nervous attempt to seem pious...

The inside of the temple was simple, not ornate. There were no glowing candles or sweeping promenade or idols standing at its fore. On each wall was a carved-stone, ivory-white sign emblazoned with the Most Great Name.

There were wooden pews in rows at the temple's center. I chose the most middle seat and quietly settled. I brought my face to my hands and prayed... or meditated... or thought... or recollected. Whatever it was I did, I did it with reverence. It had been a long and very difficult year. My heart still beat with the whisper of S's name. I had lost my way and my purpose and my love. I had missed my daughter for nine months, I had lost my father. Yet, strangely, somehow the "I" in all of these thoughts was absent. They became "S is missed, she is confused and in pain and she is loved." And "My daughter has missed her father for most of the year." And "My mother struggles with the loss of her husband and my siblings miss their father." And countless others.

I weeped. Tears streamed down my face and collected on the marble floor. I felt that I was being simultaneously crushed and elevated. An intense feeling of something collected and welled inside me and broke over me and suddenly I knew that I was done. I didn't need to be there anymore. The experience I'd had was not religious. It was spiritual, and it was my first.

I stood, proudly, and made for the temple's exit. Once outside, the faces of my compatriots told me instantly that they realize what had happened. My cheeks were still damp and ruddy. I raced to the director and grasped him in an enormous hug. All I could say was, "Thank you, friend." He patted my shoulders and told me that I was welcome. I could feel the tears regathering, and I moved to Lule, my guide and then our driver and then Alaina and gave them each their own embrace.

As we were gathering ourselves to depart, Lule -- who is Muslim -- asked the Director if he could come back and learn more about the Baha'i faith. I smiled again.

So many things could have transpired to prevent me from having had this experience. It was an excellent lesson: sometimes things really do just work out.

Next up, in Part Four: Whitewater rafting the source of the Nile river.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

an impossibly narrow ideal

Sophie is elusive. Though she has been here and here, I've not yet found her. Or if I have, I just don't know it yet.

I have, apparently, told too many about Sophie. Worsening the crime, they are invariably women with whom I've shared the story:

Many years ago, I was on a KLM flight from the east coast to Amsterdam. It was one of those giant 747s, and of course -- government-funded transportation being what it is -- I was seated precisely in the middle of the middle row, with neither free access to a window or aisle or room for my (admittedly narrow) ass but for the egregiously overweight people to both my right and left.

Yet directly in front of me and one seat to my left sat Sophie. Upon seeing her, I was instantly smitten. Over the course of the next seven hours, I deduced that she was a French girl of the early-20s set, a globe-jumping, hostel-gracing backpacker fresh out of undergrad school. She was neither dirty nor prissy... she may have worn those same jeans for two or three days. She hadn't washed her curly blonde hair that morning, but I'm sure it still smelled of meadows and lilacs. I imagined her luggage fool of notebooks and Lonely Planets and smashed among tampons and a novelty compass and a Ziploc full of gorp was a pack of Marlboro reds, missing only one. Her tan was genuine and was bordered by whiteness only at her waist and thighs, and her toenails once painted were trim and feminine still but flecked with a faded purple. She could move effortlessly from Keanes to Marc Jacobs and from flannel to silk. She could upend a bottle of Irish whiskey 'round a campfire before later retiring to write poetry.

I didn't utter a single syllable to Sophie. For all I know, her name was Anaïs or even Barbara. She had no idea that I sat behind her and that she would become my unwitting muse for the next eight months as I fought a war. She certainly doesn't know that to this day, a candle burns somewhere for her. Yet Sophie does not exist.

In the intervening years, I have told this story to countless people, trying to explain My Perfect Woman. The Perfect Love. The Beginning and End. To some in my audience, she became something of a joke, but to others, she became what they were not, themselves. To even more she became the ideal to which they, more than I would measure potential dates -- or even strangers. "Oh, Justin, I was at the pool the other day, and there were countless Sophies -- you should come with me, next time." "Justin, I know I'm not your Sophie. But I want you to find her."

I'm tired of being reminded of Sophie. Though I want to find her, too, increasingly, I think, Sophie is a mirage, and the dream of her works against me. No love I've ever had has been Sophie -- and this did not lessen my love or attraction for them. I have no reason to believe that my next or final love will be her, either. For every dog-eared copy of Lonely Planet, there's been a Treatise on Cost Accounting.

I think I need to let Sophie go. Or, that Sophie needs to let me go. It is fitting for her to end her haunting, here. She was created in impossible circumstances, she should wisp away in the same.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Trust (and fidelity)

Apparently, something about being deployed brings out the writing in me. I've only been here 24 hours, and already I've been inspired again.

I was enjoying* my first re-deployed dinner at the chow hall, in the company of two of my crewmates (with whom I have previously worked.) Somehow, our conversation turned to the relationship I had with my ex-wife and the reasons it failed, and my general (but apparently unshared) perspective on trust. Allow me to explain:

Shortly after 9/11, I was ordered to the Persian Gulf in preparation for the inevitable conflict in Afghanistan. I arrived in Bahrain where I was subsequently enrolled in a class. After graduating in two weeks, I would then join the Marines for the invasion of Afghanistan through Pakistan.

The class convened in the afternoons and ran until about 9PM. My classmates were four others with whom I had closely worked, served and had fun for years in both deployed places and stateside. Two of them, notably, were women.

I and the two other guys shared a flat, and the two girls shared a flat directly above us. After class, everyone always ended up in the Boy Flat where we cooked dinner, made drinks, played Spades and PlayStation, bullshat and just generally had a good time.

I had been married for over five years at this point. Now, for the sake of this argument, I ask that you stipulate the following:

~ I had been faithful.
~ I had always been faithful.
~ I had never done anything to lead my ex-wife that I had the propensity for being unfaithful.
~ It was understood that I am faithful.

Late at night, either I or my ex-wife would call the other to share the day's activities and generally express our love and appreciation. Invariably, she would hear in the background the activities of my male roommates and female friends. Again: things like Spades and cooking dinner.

Progressively, she lost her mind in a jealous rage (cliche, I know, but it fits.) She refused to accept the conditions of my flat. Specifically, that there were women present. In respect and consideration of her feelings, I rationally, calmly and empathetically explained the situation. Summary: that we were all just friends enjoying company in the few weeks we had before heading off separately into war zones in which we would, among other things, work seven days a week for the foreseeable future.

It was for naught.

Mind you, Nichole had friends who were men with and with whom, I'm sure, she had occasion to hang out with on occasion. Because she had my complete trust and utter faith, I never had problem with this.


I would be remiss if I didn't consider my relationship with S in this context. Unlike Nichole, S had a 'flirty streak' that I may have touched on in this blog. I recall one particular incident that gives context:

I was in Georgia attending a class when I received a call from S. She had planned on going out with coworkers that night in D.C -- this I already knew. However, one of her coworkers, a man named Dan (a subject definitely touched on in this blog) and with whom she would be drinking that night, would be going early that next morning to Anne Arundel county for a meeting, and... "would it be okay if he just stayed over" that night, in order to cut the drive in half (we lived in Gaithersburg).

I told S that, admittedly, I was a little uncomfortable with the idea, but -- swallowing my own insecurities -- I was okay with it, because I had trust in her and had faith in our relationship.

(Of course, I would later learn that I had made a huge mistake.

My dining coworkers (one female, one male) both agreed that, in essence, I am an idiot.


My beliefs in this matter are primarily centered around equity. That, in the context of a deep and committed relationship, I give my trust to my partner, and that in turn, I expect the same. Of course, all this flies out the window as soon as trust has been broken, or if one of the two has cast doubt on their own ability to remain faithful.

Nonetheless. The male coworker with whom I was dining gave me this example: suppose he's deployed (which, perhaps not coincidentally, he is, and his wife back home -- you know the one -- taking care of the kids, the home, going to work, going to school, all of the million things that go on in Real Life that are real responsibilities and just suck when you have to do them alone... wants to go to the movies with her friend, who's a dude. My position: okay. I'd have faith in my wife and her judgment. My coworker's position: not a chance in hell.

The female at my table related a story: she'd recently called her husband and told him that she'd just worked out in the gym tent with another male coworker, (we'll call him) John. Her husband asked, "Alone, or with someone else, too?" To which she replied, "Oh, Ted was there, too." He was okay with that. Because there were two guys with her. If it had been just one, apparently, he'd have had a problem with it. She told him, "That's why I love you." Because he got it... the "rules" or some shit. She would have been disappointed had he been comfortable with just the one guy.


Can't a menage pop out just as easily as a little one-on-one? Where's the end of the line of extrapolation? What if she was the only girl among a group of a dozen men? How is that less threatening than just one? And how does he get off sitting here at dinner with an admittedly attractive girl and joke about his giant dick all the while insisting that his wife back home couldn't go to the Farmer's Market with another man?

I questioned --endlessly-- both of their ideas of trust, faith and judgment. Neither accepted my argument that it takes two to tango and both insisted on some ill-defined concept of "temptation."

To hell with that. Am I naive? I am passionate about this concept -- this concept of trust and equality and NO hypocrisy... but, admittedly, two of my significant relationships have failed... both around this issue: one in that I couldn't convince my then-wife of its merits, and another in that my faith with my then-girlfriend was misplaced... so perhaps I should abandon the idea in favor of "I'm not you and you're not me."


*Enjoying is relative. In this case, I did not expect the Parmesan Chicken Patty to result in explosive diarrhea.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


So, I was reading this silly discussion thread at entitled "What is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you in front of someone you had a crush on?"...

... and I laughed at myself, because I remembered something I did when I was younger but certainly not smarter.

I couldn't have been but seven or eight years old. One day, I came home from school excited and worried. I told Mom that Amber -- my impossibly hot across-the-alley-neighbor** -- had related to me on the bus that her birthday was the next day.

Frantic, I asked my mom what I could possibly give her as a present, given the short notice. In turn, Mom helped me make a rose -- and dear God, I hope you believe me, because this is so funny I'm nearly peeing myself -- from TOILET PAPER.

We made a rose from rolled-up and folded-up toilet paper and even added some perfume to make it smell nice.

The next day, I sheepishly gave it to her on the bus. She took it, and said, "I was just kidding. Today is not my birthday. I lied. And this was made from toilet paper."

I was humiliated. I'm pretty sure I tried to pass it off, like "I knew that, it's a joke gift. I mean, come on, it's made of toilet paper."


Amber, as I've come to learn, later became a Section-8-enjoying hussy with a clown car for a vagina. Hah!!

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Part-Time Dad (Redux)

Despite having had my daughter for three consecutive weekends, still her absence haunts me.

This evening, I was putting away laundry in my room at my friend's house. The basket I've been using, pressed into temporary service when my relationship with S imploded and my home went into storage, has long contained at its bottom a draw-stringed violet cotton bag -- one that is rarely seen or remembered because it is usually hidden beneath a small pile of my uniforms to be washed.

As I finished putting away my clothes, I looked to the basket to see if I'd missed anything. I hadn't. But there was that purple sack, and it had become upset, My Little Pony panties and impossibly small white ankle socks and tank tops with glittery "Daddy's Girl" logos and elastic-banded jeans leaking out.

They are my daughter's. They are her soiled clothes from nearly nine months ago -- unwashed and unkempt and likely unfitting, now. I'm certain there's a metaphor there, somewhere...

Nonetheless, it was sad. Is sad.

Each of these last three weekends, because I've neither house nor home to which to bring my daughter, I've exercised even more 'part' in the 'part-time' daddyness. I've had her entire days, but not overnight. All of her belongings -- her bedroom furniture, her clothes, her toys, her pictures and paintings and jewelry boxes and books and figurines and bloody well everything that makes a home a home is in storage.

But for a small, tidy yet unkempt bag of grass-stained memories.

I just talked to her an hour ago, as I do every night. Yet I miss her so.

Funny how I can be homesick even when I'm home.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Requiem for a dream...

An intermission in Kenya/Uganda story time.

At the conclusion of one of those maddening work days in which it seems like everything went frustratingly wrong, I returned to Scott's house. For what seemed like the first time in quite some time, I didn't have anything that necessarily needed done tonight, and there wasn't anyone that I just had to see. I had an open schedule, so to speak.

Though only 5PM -- early by most standards -- I was wiped. I surrendered. Succumbing to the idea that I'd catch twelve blissful hours of sleep, I headed upstairs to my (decidedly temporary) bedroom and laid with a book I've been meaning to finish since Nairobi.

I'd only read perhaps twenty pages when the urge became too great. I lofted the book to the floor, turned over to face the (cancerous) wall, and departed the world.

Just moments ago, I awoke -- only two hours later. I had a dream -- a wonderful, enthralling, believable dream. But I woke up. Seriously -- I'm feeling sad because I woke up, and it turns out that the little reality my mind had created for me isn't real. (I think I'd make an ideal candidate for heroin addict.)

To wit, my dream:

We (and we are many -- perhaps a dozen mid-twenties to early-thirties singles) lived in a huge old victorian home that had been converted to apartments. The halls were enormous and efficient and echoed the constant tip-top of inexpensive but stylish heels and the shuffling of white-socked feet and giggles and lovers' quarrels and plans being made. It felt like home, despite it being shared.

In the fading twilight, a group of six or so of us decided to go out and play. Play in the sense that you went out to play as a kid. The excitement was palpable. We rushed to the grand park of our gated neighborhood -- which seemed only to encompass our house and another, similar mansion (but darker, and perhaps a bit more brooding.) Reaching it, we decided that we'd play with our 'powers.'
Now, I'm not one to have 'superpower' dreams... in fact, I can't remember ever having had one before... but I suppose this one qualifies. Neither I nor anyone else's power was altogether 'super', but we did have abilities that are impossible in the waking world.
My 'power' was an effete sort of magnetism that could, when I focused really, really hard, affect objects within maybe an arm's reach.

I sat atop a fence surrounding the park, watching others run, laughing, back and forth before me. In the wan illumination of a very few streetlights, I counted happy young people playing tag and sharks and minnows and Hot Lava! amid the park's dark green, rubber-coated swings and monkey bars and slides and seesaws.

I turned to my left and saw -- sitting near me and also on the fence -- the object of my quiet adoration. I felt my heart swell as I took in her silhouette. God, she was so beautiful... I've known her for so long, and I've been little closer to her than 'friend.' She is brilliantly smart... she is overtly caustic but truly caring beneath the veneer... she... I love her. I love her, and I can feel it in me.

She gave me a wry, impish smile, and I understood that she wanted to play with me. She was close enough, I decided. I focused my mind, intensely. I felt the rush of blood to my temples, and I heard the whoosh-whoosh of my pulse behind by eardrums. I clenched my hands and drew the circle of my vision in, tighter and tighter until it collapsed, flashing an utter black before I was presented the world again in grey-relief.

The pendant on Mila's necklace lifted from between her breasts and began floating towards me, straining against its simple gold chain. The countless painted bangles she wore on her right wrist all shuffled to the top of her hand, collecting tightly and slowly causing her arm to raise, pointing at me. Her hair softly lifted at the ends, as though I'd rubbed a balloon over her scalp. Giggling, she jumped from her perch atop the fence and tore off through the park.

I ran as fast as I could, following her as she twisted in and out of trees and towards the other old home in our neighborhood, a dark but unexpectedly unfrightening (and mostly vacant) hospice-care home occupied by aged people and a couple well-intentioned lunatics.

Somehow, she'd given me the slip, so I searched for her along hedgelines and behind locked sheds and around the trellised porch. I crept over to the stairway leading up to the porch when suddenly Mila flew right by me -- flew -- atop a saucer, like the kind you'd ride in the snow. She'd apparently got in the thing and tried to surf the rail alongside the stairs down to the yard from the porch. Somehow, she became oriented all crooked-y, and she landed half on her back, her delicate, feminine hands white-knuckling the saucer's sides as she made her impact. I heard a sharp crack amid the muffled thud of her collision with the ground, and she took in her breath suddenly as though the wind had been knocked out of her.

I raced to her side, Mila now free of the disk and laying sprawled, her hair in disarray, and noticed a deep look of fear exploding from behind her otherwise placid brown eyes. "I broke my back, Justin," she said, not timidly. She began turning over to her side, drawing one hand as if to point, saying, "... right here.." I softly grasped one shoulder and made her return to her previous position.

"Sweetheart, I don't know... it was a nasty fall, and I'm sure it hurts... but it's unlikely you broke your back. You're hurt, yes, but maybe something's just out of whack, like a slipped vertebrae or something... given that you just moved around a little... from what I understand, if your back was broken, you probably wouldn't be able to move like that..."

"Maybe," she replied, hesitantly but clearly accepting my care, "... okay. But it really hurts." Tears welled up in her eyes, and she took one of my hands with hers, clenching it... through which I felt a connection -- a charge of emotion -- that told me that maybe -- just maybe -- she loved me, too.

I gave her hand a soft squeeze and said, "I'll take care of you, love." She understood. I felt the true weight of love descend over me... I felt compassion and responsibility in equal measure. She was mine, now, and I would take care of her.

I left her side, insisting that she remain still, and raced up the stairs, where I ordered someone to go inside and bring back a stretcher or something similar. Without question, he ran into the building and shortly returned with an enormous gurney, made strangely of thick green plastic. It didn't have corners; instead its edges were formed by soft, rolled-up extensions of the green, gritty stuff. Super-super-ergonomic. It was so wide in expanse that were it not for the indentation offering accommodation to only one, surely three or four patients could lay side-by-side in comfort. Very strange.

I pushed it from behind, crashing down the steps towards Mila. Once I'd reached her, I pushed down with my foot on some sort of lever, and it collapsed to ground-level, at which point three or four of our playmates had gathered and assisted me in getting her on top of it. "Just to be careful," I told her, as I brought the safety belts from under the bed and across her delicate frame and snugly locked her into position.

Someone had taken her shoes off, leaving her insanely cute socked feet exposed to the now chilled night air. Magically, a small blanket appeared, and I placed it over her. She drew into the tightest of fetal positions -- despite the safety restraints, and balled up for warmth and comfort and (as it seemed to me) in a sign of her contentedness with my care. I pinched the blanket between her body and the gurney, making sure to wrap her feet like a burrito -- I don't want those toes escaping, I thought with a smile.

All set, I lifted the gurney back up with the depression of another lever, and I began pushing her back towards our house, which sat at the bottom of a significant hill from where we were. I began guiding more than pushing as the bed and my precious Mila picked up speed, but I was absolutely confident that I wouldn't make a mistake, despite the cries of "Justin, be careful!" from the group we'd just left. I pushed at the gurney's corners with just enough force and at precisely all the right times to avoid obstacles and race ever faster towards our own front door.

The end.

p.s. I am aware that there is definitely some sort of depravity to be found in dreaming about being in love with a celebrity. Sue me. (Though I think it is what she represents, rather than she as a person with which I was/am in love.)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Kenya and Uganda (Part Two)

Day two.

The following morning, I ate an honest-to-god breakfast that did not look like this:

Instead, it was heaven-sent manna prepared by the Hilton Nairobi chefs. I may have even had a banana. Mmmm.

Sated, I left for the busy streets outside and took in the sights of:
  1. People not necessarily committed to killing me;
  2. Buildings made of stone, brick, concrete and steel, rather than dung, sticks and discarded plastic shopping bags;
  3. Automobiles belching the vilest industrial filth imaginable. (Refer to fellating an exhaust pipe in Part One.)
Unfortunately, in the intervening time between sleeping and feasting, I had received an email from the outfitter with whom I'd planned on rafting the Tana and Athi rivers indicating that the water levels were too low. Of course, the only reason I'd come to Kenya was to see and feel water. (You are kindly reminded that I had just spent eight months in a searing Hell.)

How nice it was, then, that I was accosted by a "finder" not 25 steps from the hotel. He offered me (as expected) mzungu-approved safaris, and I told him I was interested. He subsequently took my arm in hand and ushered me through a dizzying series of avenues and alleys until I was dispatched with great fanfare to a smiling man seated behind a dirty, disarrayed veneer desk who promised to 'make my African dreams come true.'


I told him I wanted to whitewater raft, and related the story I'd been given by Savage Wilderness. He promptly assured me that everything would be made right, and simultaneously took up his desk phone (rotary!) and mobile and dialed through to parts of his mysterious network of 'contacts.'


Given that he couldn't accommodate my desire to raft, would I be interested in seeing the Masai Mara? Perhaps Hell's Gate?

No. Oi... what a waste of time.

I left, crestfallen and struggling to find some sort of solution. I needed water.

Having returned to my hotel room, I despondently sat at the desk and checked my email. Hey hey! I had received an email from a different 'travel service' to whom I had pleaded my case when I'd earlier discovered that Savage was going to bone me. "Call me immediately, I can help," it read.

I did so, and had a cheery conversation with a man I could only imagine as fat. No one else could be so jolly. He asked that I come to his office; I agreed. I left the hotel and hired a cab to his address where I was met -- notably, this time -- without undue fanfare. In fact, the bastard was 30 minutes late.

Once he'd arrived, I was ushered to his cluttered workspace where I sat amid piles of brochures and pamphlets and maps and across from (and uncomfortably close to) three young Kenyan women typing furiously at keyboards. (I would later learn that they were his interns, and they were engaged in updating his web page -- of which he is extraordinarily proud.)

He insisted that he could solve my problem (once I made it clear that I only wanted to raft) and, like his predecessor, made all number of calls to his (own) network.

Fail. Sigh.

"Would you be interested in going to Uganda? You could raft the source of the Nile from Lake Victoria. I could have you there tomorrow morning."

The Nile?!? Holy hell!

Ten hours later, I was on a flight from Nairobi to Kampala, where I was met by two men who (and I'm not being melodramatic here) are chiefly responsible for changing my life. And it wasn't just because of the Nile. I'll explain in my next update.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Kenya and Uganda (Part One)

I'm home. As promised, a trip report.

Day One

Arriving in Nairobi, I was immediately struck by how green everything is. In contrast to the desert hellhole to which I'd been posted for eight months, Nairobi is heaven. Of course, 'This is Africa' (and all that), so it's not like Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has gates or anything. No, instead we deplaned to the tarmac from which we passengers walked over to the terminal to process through customs and such.

Bliss. The air was so clean, so pure and crisp and cool! (Those who have traveled to Nairobi may be struck by the irony in that statement, given -- as I later learned -- to be in Nairobi is to, essentially, fellate a diesel tailpipe.)

In short order, I was given a visa and welcomed to the Real East Africa. After collecting my luggage, I exited the airport and stood outside among the milling throngs of people coming and going all hither and thither and just smiled. I was free. Furthermore, I was finally in a place that spoke one of my learned foreign languages. I was going to get immersion practice, and I was thrilled.

Rather than hire a taxi to my hotel, I asked a red-coated customer service agent (in Swahili!) what bus would take me there. He told me where to stand and told me to take the next one that arrived. So I did.

It is called the "City Hoppa." It was packed with a teeming mass of commuters. Suspiciously, the goat was absent. But I was ecstatic. I boarded, asked if it was going to my hotel, and was told that the bus would stop "near there." Hoo-ray.

My baggage occupied two seats, and I another. This is important because I'd later learn that the fare is by seat. Much later, though. Much, much later.

It turns out that the "City Hoppa" is an mzungu*-free form of transportation. All the other passengers were, shall we say, a little amused by my presence. The unbelievably circuitous route the bus took gave me opportunity to witness a fair portion of eastern Nairobi; I arrived an hour after departing the airport, despite the perhaps entertaining fact that Kenyatta airport lies but 40 kilometers from my hotel. There are a lot of bus stops in Nairobi.

Once I'd arrived at "near the Hilton," I was aided off the bus by a matronly mama mkubwa**. She was so entertained by my presence, she insisted on carrying the heaviest of my bags the three or so blocks from "near the Hilton" to the Hilton. She rocked!

After checking into my room -- oh, sweet Jesus, a real bed -- I flung the wide windows open and basked in the business of the street below. A million people were hurrying from one place to another, unaffected by the late hour or choking smog or insanely piloted cars or frenetic matatus***. I smiled, again, and took pictures.

I took a shower. By myself. I crapped. By myself. I kicked off my shoes (not boots, mind you) and landed with a muffled thud on my bed in which I'd eventually sleep. By myself.

Brilliant. My spirits could not have been higher... I thought. The next day, they would be.

* Mzungu (Wazungu): (n.) Whitey; Cracker; Culturally-unaware, probably British tourist.
** Mama Mkubwa (Mama Wakubwa): (n.) Big momma; Old mother; Grandmother.
*** Matatu (Matatu): (n.) Nothing I could write would do justice. Instead, read this.

Days Two through Five in short order. They get increasingly interesting, I promise.

Friday, August 3, 2007

...on my way HOME

Back in the States by Sunday... after having taken a little me-time in Kenya and Uganda. Mad trip report to follow after I've slept.

But here's a teaser: on the way from Kampala to Jinja, through the window I spotted a paperboard sign hastily stapled to a lightpost. "Marburg Confirmed in Kampala," was written in bold, black strokes. It's cool and all that I'm (we're) being warned, but... umm... a streetsign? Shouldn't there be more, uh, emphasis? I mean, Marburg Disease is not the kind of thing you want kept secret, y'know? Bleeding out of the eyes and all? Dropping dead because your insides have liquified??

Shit. I was eaten alive last night at the hostel. And now I'm on my way to whitewater raft the Nile. I wonder if the doxycillin I've been taking as a Malaria prophylactic is enough. How much Off do I have?

Sunday, July 29, 2007


Refugee Realizes Dream of Citizenship
A Decade After Fleeing Iraq, Woman, 20, Is Serving as a U.S. Marine

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007; Page A10

It was 1996 in Iraq, and Saddam Hussein was in power. U.N. inspectors were searching for weapons of mass destruction, and U.N. sanctions were on. U.S. jets screamed overhead in no-fly zones. Rival Kurdish factions battled openly. And the Babani family regularly stacked giant bags of powdered milk against the windows of their home in northern Iraq to protect against stray bullets.

Sona Babani was 10 years old at the time. She played hopscotch with her neighbors when she wasn't in her basement hiding from gunshots. Yesterday, Babani, 20, dressed in her Marine best and became a U.S. citizen.

Babani was surrounded by 24 men and women from 14 countries in a ceremony at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, where she led those in the room in the Pledge of Allegiance. Twelve others in the group were also members of the U.S. military. They joined about 26,000 other "green card" service members -- noncitizens serving in the U.S. military -- who have become citizens since September 2001.

"I am an American. I am a citizen of a country I am fighting for," Babani said, explaining her desire to become a citizen. "It's kind of personal. I have loved America since I was little."

NSA/CSS Adds New Name to Cryptologic Memorial Wall

On 24 July 2007, LTG Keith B. Alexander, USA, Director, National Security Agency/ Chief, Central Security Service, paid special tribute to CTT1 Steven P. Daugherty at a Memorial Ceremony. The service was attended by family, friends, and distinguished guests.

Petty Officer Daugherty, USN, a Cryptologic Technician Technical was a member of Navy Information Operations Command Norfolk, who was deployed in direct support of Commander, Naval Special Warfare Group TWO’s Tactical Support Center. He perished on 6 July 2007 while performing a cryptologic mission in Baghdad when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detonated near his humvee.

The ceremony included a traditional wreath laying and the unveiling of the name "CTT1 Steven P. Daugherty" on the NSA/CSS Cryptologic Memorial Wall. The wall, dedicated in 1996, lists the names of 157 Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, and civilian cryptologists who have made the ultimate sacrifice, "serving in silence," in the performance of their duties since World War II.

Additional information on the Memorial Wall and a special historical monograph highlighting CTT1 Daugherty’s life, service, and sacrifice can be viewed via the NSA/CSS web site at

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why Persian Women Are Also Super Hot

Much as KassyK defended Israeli hott(i)ness, I couldn't help myself after I read the article.

See? This woman (the very un-chador'ed one at left) can only be found in Iran. Pick another Islami-super-state, and you'll come up dry. Well, at least on the streets. Saudi Arabia? Nope. Kuwait? Not a chance.

Among the many wondrous traits of the Persian female, finding ever-more creative ways to push the boundaries and, for lack of a better term, fight the man is perhaps paramount. Despite living in a patriarchal culture (to say nothing of it being the world's only theocracy -- now, now, the Vatican doesn't count...), Persian women by-and-large willfully continue to maintain their femininity. They have (*cough*) balls.

Exhibit: Let's call her Laleh (tulip). Look closely and observe that Laleh's manteau is form-fitting (likely tailored) and just barely covers her butt. Her roosari (headscarf) is patterned, and more importantly, pushed sufficiently back to reveal her diligently coiffed (and sinful) hair. Her jeans -- yes! designer jeans!! (Remember the Bedazzler?)

Of course, she has been stopped by a woman servant of the vice police... and she will likely end-up on a bus headed to a police substation where she'll have to promise (ay khoda!) to never be such a wanton slut again. But the point is: she left her house knowing that it was possible she'd be stopped and harassed. And she did it anyway. (Better, though, the matron than the club-wielding, motorcycle-riding asshat basiji.)

She and countless others just like her will, anshallah, one day resurrect the glorious Persian culture that brought the world such graceful beauties as Farah Pahlavi, the Shahbanu.

He’s now working on what he thinks is the perfect rock band for Iran.

“It has the usual things: drums, bass, guitars . . . but with girls!” They’re going to be Iran’s answer to the Spice Girls, but with a very different kind of girl power. The law says that the lead vocalist in a publicly approved rock band cannot be a girl. His trick is that all members of the band are vocalists, so it can’t be said that the lead vocalist is a girl. It is in thousands of such small tests of change that Iranians from all walks of life are transforming their country.