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.