Monday, December 24, 2012

Santa Claus has arrived in Afghanistan

One of my favorite things during the Christmas season is tracking Santa on the NORAD site. For over 50 years, the North American Aerospace Defense Command has used their super secret binoculars to follow the path of jolly Saint Nick as he travels the world giving gifts to good boys and girls. In the last few years, NORAD has embraced social media, using interactive maps and videos to highlight Santa's trip.

This is the first time I have ever followed Santa's path while living in a different country. As expected, on the eve of Christmas, Kris Kringle and his reindeer flew over Afghanistan, giving gifts to good boys and girls and wishing all a very Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Nine months in Afghanistan - the 75% update



Greetings all,

I know I just wrote at the 8 month mark – 66% of my adventure – but I am passing the 75% mark today and wanted to give a quick update.

Not much is new on my new base. The hours are longer, but I am working to build a management program for an officer I’ve known for years, so there is a bit of personal gratification there. Alas, with 14 hour days and the fact that I still don’t really know my way around this base after 6 weeks, I haven’t had much time at all do or work on comedy. So no more updates from the stage. Sorry.

But I do have two points I do want to give an update on.

One, it’s cold. Not arctic frigid, but cold enough for my Florida self already. We are dipping into the low 30s at night and the high 40s during the day. And when the heater in my room doesn’t work, that’s cold. I haven’t seen the sun in at least three days. Supposedly, it’s supposed to snow soon. I haven’t seen snow since 1999 in Bosnia. I thought global warming made snow extinct. Must be an Afghanistan thing.

One thing I have to remember out here is perspective. It always helps to have perspective. Although it might be cold when I walk from my building to work or from my building to dining facility, I eventually reach a heated interior. While walking, however, I often pass a group of Afghan laborers who work on the base digging ditches or doing other forms of manual labor. All day, all night, and even in the rain. The cold, wet, bone-chilling rain. I feel bad for them, but they taking advantage of an opportunity to work in the few places that are hiring in Afghanistan. At least for now.

The second big thing I want to update everyone about is my first novel. I am writing a book out here. Not about Afghanistan or anything like that, but about baseball, the blues, and the Devil. It’s been a great way to escape in my little free time and dive into my own universe and story. I am currently nearing page 90 of my rough draft. That might not seem like much in regards to a book, but I am working on it. I hope to have the rough draft done before I leave. Then the editing and re-write process begins. Maybe I will have it done by this time next year. Maybe I will be published, maybe I will self-publish. Whichever way I go, I will let everyone know.

Third and final note of this abbreviated update goes along with the “whichever way I go” theme. That is, I need to figure out which way I am going when I get back. Do I stick with the current field, which may or may not face severe budget cuts? Do I finally work on a book on the Kurdish military of Iraq, the subject I wrote my 90-plus page master’s thesis on? Do I go get that MBA I’ve often thought about getting? And if so, in what? Marketing? Finance? International business? It would help to have a plan. So for the next few months, I need to make one.

Or I could wing it. It’s worked so far.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A few brief moments with Edgar Ter-Oganessian



For whatever reason, this year has been one of my most difficult. Not only has it been one of my most challenging in regards to being in Afghanistan and all the physical, professional, and personal tolls that takes, but it has also been one of my most emotionally trying. As I have written on this blog, both of my grandmothers passed away. In August, I found out an old Army friend of mine I visited in 2000 and had an experience worth writing about passed away in 2007.

A few weeks ago, I found out a college friend, another person I had some writable times with, passed away in September.

I met Edgar Ter-Oganessian in a class during my junior year at Florida State. It might have been Intro to Political Theory, I’m not sure. But I do remember the class was in a stadium-like classroom, where the rows angled up the room and the students looked down towards the professor. Kinda like a stadium-seating movie theater.

Edgar and several other members of the Florida State football team, to include current NFL player Darnell Dockett, sat in the row right behind me in class. It was the first class I had the opportunity to talk to and interact with members of the highly regarded football team. I had football players, such as future NFL player Chris Hope, in other classes prior to, but never sat near them nor talked to them.

In typical high profile athlete fashion, Darnell Dockett vanished from attendance after the first week, never to be seen until the last day and the final exam. But Edgar and one of his boys were there almost every class. Within the social structure of the class, I became part of his group. I don’t know how I ended up sitting near him, but I remember I cracked Edgar up a few times with a some witty comments. After that, we were friends.

Whereas Darnell Dockett fit the disappearing athlete role, Edgar seemed to fit the “I’m just in college to play football” role. Although a fun guy, he didn’t seem interested in class, despite showing up to every lesson. I’m not sure how much Edgar learned in the class, but he did teach me an academic mantra that while I never tried to live by, I’ll never forget.

“A ‘C’ gets a degree.”

From my perspective it wasn’t a mantra I strove for, as I was reaching for As or Bs, but from the perspective of an athlete with 2-a-day practices and playbooks to memorize, and school a second, if not third priority, it made sense.

Even if Intro to Political Theory wasn’t his bag, Edgar did care and did try to do at least minimally well. As he saw I was doing well, towards the end of the semester he asked if I could help him study for the final. I accepted, as I did with anyone who wanted to be a study partner.

Edgar swung by my apartment one night and we did some studying, but if I remember correctly, he did more talking on the phone. He also told me pearls of wisdom about being on the football team, such as his belief that former Seminoles defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews looked like a fish when he was mad. To this day, I can’t look at Mickey Andrews and think of anything but a fish.

Even outside of our class, Edgar asked me for academic help. I remember him once calling and asking me to write paper for him for $40. When I respectfully declined, saying I had too much on my plate with my own papers and an article for the student newspaper, he was cool with that, saying only that he understood and that he would see me in class. I’ll admit, even though I wanted to help, something just wasn’t right about that. I’ll edit people’s work and make it shine, but I’ve always drawn the line on creating for other people.

I stayed friends with Edgar for a few semesters after our class. He invited me to perhaps one of the best, if not most interesting Super Bowl parties I have ever been to. I wrote about my experience partying with Edgar during the 2002 Bucs-Raiders Super Bowl a few years ago. Let’s just say it involved chicken bones, fat girls, a lot of beer, and a 9mm pistol.

The involvement of the 9mm was also one incident I don't think I will ever forget. As we all kept drinking and watching the game, and as the Bucs started to pull away from the Raiders, Edgar, a huge San Francisco 49ers fan, walked out of the living room for a few moments and returned with a pistol. He placed the pistol on the coffee table in front of his chair and told everyone they should root for the Raiders because longtime 49ers Jerry Rice played for the Raiders. And if they rooted for the Bucs, they could get the hell out. He ended his decree with statement, “this is how I’m living”. Another absolutely classic line I’ve kept with me all these years.

I partied with Edgar one other time before we went our different ways. The second party had a lot less beer, and to this day I still I don’t know whose place it was at. But that night Edgar taught me to the term “baking cakes” for hitting on a woman. Every time one of his friends talked to a girl during the party, Edgar would tap me on the shoulder and say “look, he’s baking cakes”. It didn’t stick like the other phrases he told me, but “baking cakes” was still original.

Years later, I saw Edgar at a Tallahassee club called the Moon. It was either 2005 or perhaps 2006 after I had moved down to Tampa. Of course, he remembered me and gave me a handshake hug and asked how I was doing. I remember him being much calmer and telling me he was going to grad school, which I found shocking considering my academic impression of him years earlier. But I congratulated him and told him good luck.

I guess people really can change. Edgar was only in his early 20s when we hung out and I was in my late 20s. When I saw him at the Moon, I was a bit past 30 and he was in his mid-20s, and probably hitting the post-college maturity level when throwing chicken bones and wielding guns at parties is considered a bad idea.

Two years later he got sick. According to the FSView and Florida Flambeau, Edgar had a rare cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer that affects the muscle attaching to bones. Edgar made it four years with this unique cancer before the cancer took his life.

From what I’ve read, Edgar ended up an inspirational man and a counselor to many FSU students. That’s awesome. It’s always great to hear about friends who made a difference. It makes me feel even worse that he is gone far too soon.

As I mentioned, in the last year I’ve lost two grandmothers and found out two friends passed away. Two of these people I knew for 35 years, the other two for only a few. Two people I celebrated holidays with and two I drank beer and partied with. In 2012, I learned I will never see any of them again.

Writing to me is not only a way to convey feeling or to tell stories or jokes, it also a way to record. Record for anyone who wants to read the story of my life and how great the people I encounter are, how they all bring something different into my life, and how they all have influenced me in some way, shape, or form. Through this adventure I have propelled myself on over the last 35 years, I have met some amazing people and shared some great times. Times I never want to forget. Times that through these words, I hope will live forever. Even if we don’t.

(Pic from capitaloutlook.com. That's Edgar deep in his sickness meeting longtime idol Mike Tyson.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Ridiculously consistent trickle of cameos



Another November passed and with it several annual traditions:

1) Thanksgiving - the slaughtering of a bird we usually don't eat much of any other time

2) Macy's Parades - the celebration of a store most people forgot was still in business

3) National Novel Writer's Month - the writing event that causes me to lose more sleep than any report did in college

4) My submission to the Clark J Brooks Parade of Local Writers.

In 2010, I wrote about my overabundance of mailing labels.

In 2011, I wrote about the confusing pricing of fries and a coke.

This year, I wrote another article about wedding planning. I discuss giving the nuptial ceremony some afros, bell bottoms, and funk. Check it out.

By the way, isn't it about time Clark starts making t-shirts? Or maybe awarding neato little gif files that look like annual badges? Something would be nice, right?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Even Superwoman could use a foot rub once in a while



Like so many people across the world, I have been watching the David Petraeus "scandal" with interest. But my interests are of course, different from others. While most wonder "how could that have happened?" in regards to Petraeus's long-standing marriage and his biographer's marriage and all the other professional perspectives, I look at as "how did this happen?" as in, how did the four-star general put the moves on his biographer?

According to the most recent reports, Paula Broadwell was a Superwoman. An intelligence officer in the Army Reserves, a West Point grad, an doctoral student, a Harvard grad, a marathon runner, a career advisor, a wife, and a mother of two. And an author of the biography of one of our most famous living four-star generals. All this by the time she was 37 (correction, 42).

I'm 35, I don't consider myself that much of a slacker, but I haven't done half the things Paula Broadwell has done. And I am surely not going to catch up to her achievements in the next few years. If I consider myself a wee bit of an overachiever, Paula Broadwell is the definition of an insane overachiever.

But even the most motivated overachievers need a break. They need a moment or two to relax and let their uber-competitive guard down. And that's when I bet the general made his move.

(Setting: the general's private quarters, somewhere in Iraq or Afghanistan.)

General Petraeus sees a stressed out Paula Broadwell.

Here, have a glass of wine with me.

It's been a rough day. I see you are working hard. Why don't you take your shoes off?

Isn't that better?

Come here. Let me rub your shoulders.

You are so tense....

(Queue shoulder rub, which leads to the inevitable blah, blah, blah. You get the picture. This isn't a Fanfic site.)

The deed either went down like that or it went down like Tenacious D in the classic ditty "Double Team".

Or maybe, just maybe, it went down like Dark Helmet imagined it would:

Sunday, November 18, 2012

For Grandma Lortz

Unfortunately, once again I am compelled to write about someone I will sadly never see again. In June, I wrote a tribute to my mother’s mother, my Grandma Walicki, after her death in the last days of May. Now, less than half a year later, I am still in Afghanistan and writing a tribute to my other grandmother, my Grandma Lortz, who passed away November 5th.

Grandmothers come in all types. From as far back as I can remember, Grandma Lortz was the “fun” grandmother, the grandmother always took us places, let us run around, and get away with things we wouldn’t normally be allowed to do. As we saw her and my grandfather (who passed away in 1995) far less, there wasn’t the hands-on discipline and knowledge of our family rhythms that there was with my mother’s parents, who always lived much closer.

When I was young, my grandparents on my father’s side lived in Queens, in the same house where my father spent his teenage years. I don’t remember much about their house in Queens, except that it fit the stereotype of what a grandparents’ home was. There were things in the house from years before and it had a very “past” feel to it. Being that it was the early to mid-80s, this put most of their décor in the conservative appearance of the 1950s and 1960s. For lack of a better term, it was a typical grandparents’ house in Queens.

In 1985 or so, my Grandparents Lortz moved to upstate New York, to a little town called Olive Bridge, near Kingston, NY, about an hour and a half north of New York City, and in a completely different world from my normal urban comfort. There wasn’t much in Olive Bridge. Our visits there were my first experiences visiting a small town where the malls, shopping centers, and basically anything outside of human necessity was a long drive away. For a suburban kid such as myself, waking up to see deer and turkey roaming the back yard was an interesting experience. But even though it was nothing like I was used to, I always liked the quaintness of the house in Olive Bridge.

One of my fondest memories of visiting my Grandparents in Olive Bridge was in 1993 when my Grandmother took my brother and me to Cooperstown, NY, to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Although we didn’t have much time to sightsee as my Grandfather wasn’t well and couldn’t be left alone for long, we had a great time touring the Hall of Fame and checking out the sights of the baseball Mecca of the world.

That was one of the things I will remember the most about my Grandma Lortz, that she was a big baseball fan. Having grown up in Brooklyn, she was a raised on baseball, and when the Mets came into existence in 1962, her and my grandfather latched on to the new team and became lifelong fans. Visiting my grandparents always meant watching or listening to the Mets game and talking about Doc Gooden, Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry, and the rest of the Mets of the 80s and early 90s. I remember during the aforementioned ’93 trip to Olive Bridge sitting next to my grandfather as he listened to the Mets on his walkman and relayed that the Mets finally won a game for beleaguered pitcher Anthony Young, who had amassed the longest losing streak in Major League history.

A few years after she took me to Cooperstown, Grandma Lortz came to visit us in Florida and with my newly acquired driver's license, I took her across Florida to the Ted Williams Museum when it was in Hernando, Florida, before it moved to its current location in Tropicana Field. From what I remember, she enjoyed her time reliving the moments of baseball past. I don’t think I realized how cool it was at the time to have a baseball fan for a grandmother, but looking back, it was pretty awesome. And I guess it was because of her and my grandfather that my dad became a Mets fan and then passed a love of baseball on to me.

Sadly, those 20 year memories are among the last I have interacting with my Grandma Lortz. In the late 1990s, shortly after my grandfather passed away, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Before long, her mental capacity diminished to the point that she barely recognized her grandchildren and then eventually lost recognition of her own children. About this time, I had become an adult and my trips to New York were few and far between. But every time I visited, in 1999 and then in 2003 for weddings, my parents and other family members told me to say good-bye to my Grandmother, as it would probably be the last time I see her.

The last time I saw my Grandma Lortz was at my cousin Jan’s wedding in 2011. The care home she lived in arranged to bring her to the wedding so we could take a few pictures with the whole family. Although Grandma had her eyes open, there was no reaction to anything around her. She was there in person, but as far as we could tell, definitely not in mind.

Life is about moments. You, your family, and your loved ones only have so many together. Losing both of my grandmothers while away in Afghanistan has reaffirmed to me that I made a great decision a few weeks ago when I flew across the world for my cousin Jill’s wedding. The trip allowed me to not only see my family, but to share in moments and events that will last for lifetimes. Because you never know when those lifetimes will end.

Rest in peace, Lillian Lortz. You will be missed.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

2/3 done with my Afghanistan adventure



Greetings all,

It is time for another update. I am happy to say I am now 2/3 of the way through my adventure in Afghanistan. Unlike the last letters, in which time blended together in a Groundhog’s Day-like gumbo, the last few months have been eventful and full of interesting times, especially the latter half.

September to October more or less followed the routine of the months prior, as days were days were days. Typical of most of my time here, month seven disappeared under the normal routine of work, sleep, and food, with a consistent smattering of gym time mixed in, which I am actually quite proud of. I have been notoriously poor at maintaining a regular gym schedule over the last few years, so to have gone every Tuesday and Thursday through August and September is something I am hanging my hat on.

(Unfortunately, my co-workers typically didn’t share in my athletic accomplishment, as many were fitness buffs who attested to never miss gym days in years. To each his own, I guess.)

On a positive note, month seven also saw my account of my poor attempt at comedy get published on one of the most popular comedy blogs on the web. Once I get settled back in the states, I definitely want to get back into the comedy thing, so to have a post on Splitsider is a big deal. And as compensation, many of my friends or fellow Tampa funny people said they enjoyed the jokes I cited in the article.

Whereas the gym and getting published were the highlights of month seven, such accomplishments were small potatoes in month eight. Month eight was the most exciting, fun month I have had since I started this journey way back in March.

Two days after my eight month started I left on vacation for the states. My goal was to traverse the globe, going from Kabul to Dubai to Atlanta to Washington, DC for my cousin Jill’s wedding. And as an added bonus, I planned to surprise my parents and brother, who were also going to be at the wedding. Mid-way through my trip, however, I hit a slight snag, which despite my initial worry actually turned out to add excitement to the trip.

Due to a horrible 5.5 hour delay getting out of Kabul on a civilian airline, I missed my initial flight from Dubai to the US. Having to wait 24 hours before the next flight, I spent my wasted day sightseeing in Dubai. From what I saw, Dubai is an impressive city, part Las Vegas and part Miami with an Arabic flavor. Having missed my original flight, it was “en shallah” (God willing) that I would make the next flight out of the Middle East. Fortunately, the fates were on my side and I did.

(Check out my pictures of Dubai here.)

After a change over in Atlanta, I arrived in DC a few hours before my parents. I was told what hotel they were in, so of course I got a room in the same place. A few hours after my arrival, I went to the front desk to ask what room they were in. With the hotel clerk escorting me, I went to their room for the big surprise.

The surprise worked like a charm. They had absolutely no clue I was arriving. My brother let out a “holy shit, my brother is here” and my mother gave me a huge hug.

Following the surprise, the next few days were a whirlwind of wedding bacchanalia and shindiggery. The Monday following the wedding I flew to Orlando to spend the second week of my vacation in Florida. I surprised my little nephew (“What the heck? I thought you were gone!”) and spent a day with my grandfather. Then it was off to St. Pete Beach for a few days to see some friends, see a hip-hop concert, and stay in a relaxing beach resort before flying back to Afghanistan.

(My pics of St. Pete Beach.)

If you measure a vacation by its time, you will always come up short. But if you measure it by the goals of seeing people and doing things, then my only-13-day vacation was absolutely perfect. I did what I wanted and saw who I wanted. Of course, I would have loved to spend more time in the Tampa/St. Pete area and see everyone I know. But in order not to spread myself too thin and actually decompress, I had to cut corners in who I saw, which meant leaving a lot of good friends without seeing me. But March is right around the corner and I will be home before I know it and with that comes the ability to see everyone.

Just before I left Afghanistan, I was told another office on another base needed my services. Because I had planned my vacation months in advance, the military leadership told me to go and enjoy myself and worry about the new position when I got back. So when I returned to Afghanistan I didn’t even unpack. I packed my other belongings and within two days was whisked to another base where I will spend my final now four months in Afghanistan.

(Here are my pics of my old base.)

Having been here two weeks already, I’ve learned this base is far different than my previous home. This is a predominantly American base with US military personnel, whereas my other base was a majority international. In two weeks I have yet to say hello to anyone in any other language but English (I fear my Polish and Dari will get rusty soon!).

Working with the US military also means remembering rank and proper protocol. In the international environment, with the many foreign ranks and hierarchies, everyone called everyone by their first name. In a solely US-locale, rank becomes a much more important guidepost for social structure and interaction.

Although I’m going to miss working with my international colleagues, my current base is much larger and has much more amenities and things to do. So it is different – not better, not worse, just different. And its "home" to the second part of my Afghanistan adventure.

On a final and sad note, I learned my other grandmother passed away last week. I should have a tribute up to her soon as I did with my other grandmother who passed away in May. It's hard to believe I came out here with three living grandparents and will go home to one. But as I mentioned, I did see and spend time with my grandfather and that's what counts. Not the quantity of people left, but the quality of time you spend with them.

Now that we wind down the year, I know the days will go quickly. Thanksgiving is right around the corner, then Christmas, then New Year’s, and with any luck, I’ll be home on or around St. Patrick’s Day. Suddenly, that doesn’t seem so far away.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Nanowrimo 2012 from Afghanistan



As I did in 2011, I have entered the National Novel Writer's Month extravaganza. For those who might not be familiar, Nanowrimo is an online rallying of writers with the goal to each pen 50,000 words in a month and have a good start on a novel.

Of course, here in Afghanistan, I am not expecting to write 50,000 words. I didn't do it last year when I was unemployed and had all the time in the world, although I came sorta close. Here, I just don't have the time. I work 12 hours a day, six days a week and six hours on my "day off". I do like to occasionally do things like go to the gym, watch a little TV, read a book, or (gasp!) get some sleep. I want to more with my life than sit in front of computer at work and then in my room.

So with 50K words out of the realm of possibility, I am shooting to reach that total on a story that on November 1st was at 21,500. That's 29,000 new words. That's a little less than 1,000 words a night. Possible, I think.

(Yes, I know NaNoWriMo is supposed to be used to start new projects. I am making an exception for myself. I am using the site for the same purpose though - to push myself as a writer and keep track of the progress.)

It's gonna be tough. There will be no room for error, no room for lack of discipline, no room for wasting the night on social media, and no room for wasting words on other sites.

I will still have a few posts on this site. My 8 months in Afghanistan post should be up mid-month, for example. And I will probably have a post or two on the latest Bus Leagues Baseball book.

Anyway, 29,000 words in 30 days. In Afghanistan. While working 12 hours a day.

By the way, I think might be the only one in Afghanistan doing NaNoWriMo. I searched the site for anyone else here doing the intense writing exercise to no avail. I hope I am not the only one.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Story of Alien Chili



A few years ago, I worked with someone who claimed to be decended from the infamous Donner Party. According to my co-worker, whereas part of the party turned to cannibalism, another part of the party created a type of bean-less chili to sustain themselves on their travels. My co-worker submitted this long-kept family chili recipe every year in our office chili cook-off.

One year, using a news report that an group of ancient aliens from Africa knew of a distant star in the Sirius star system, I decided to create my own chili legend. My co-worker got the joke, although most others didn't. He laughed, and that's what was important.

Here is the legend behind Dogan Traveler Chili. I don't remember the recipe, so unfortunately this legendary chili will never be made again. Unless the Sirius aliens return.

Dogan Traveler Chili

About a month and a half ago, a group of beings from the Sirius star system visited the Dogan tribe of Mali. These travelers had planned on disguising themselves as members of the tribe, integrating into the culture, and learning about life on Earth.

Unfortunately, the travelers faced numerous difficulties. First of all, they stood nine feet tall, making blending in with a group of humans very difficult. Second, they could not communicate verbally. Because the travelers communicated among themselves via ESP, their vocal abilities had been neglected and were unable of being used. Third, they ate three times the amount of normal human beings, which tragically disrupted the Dogan's delicate food allotment.

After only two days, the Dogans became frustrated with their new guests. Many Dogan people, even those who at first welcomed the beings, began withholding food and treating the travelers with hostility.

Eventually, fights broke out and several alien beings were killed. Knowing their time on Earth was limited and they must make haste of else suffer at the hands of the angry Dogans, the remaining travelers attempted to leave Earth. Their plans failed, however, when they learned their ship had become disabled in the landing. So they did what any self-respecting space traveler would do: they offered to cook for the Dogan tribe.

As could be expected, the culinary skills of the travelers was limited. The only food they know how to make was an intergalactic peace chili traditionally made by the inhabitants of their star system. So the travelers cooked as good a chili as they had ever made before. The Dogan tribe had never had such a good tasting chili. After they were finished, the Dogan tribe invited the travelers to stay for as long as they live. Unbeknownst to the Dogans, inhabitants of the Sirius star system live over 800 Earth years.

The End.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Confessions of a formerly closeted Star Wars Fan



Those who know me or read this blog regularly know I am a big Star Wars fan. I wouldn't say "huge", but definitely "big". I watch the movies regularly, drop Star Wars quotes when I can, read Star Wars books when the fancy strikes me, and have always kept a Yoda Pizza Hut Magic 8-ball figure by my work computer at different jobs over the last six years.

Born in 1977, I was raised on Star Wars. The phenomenon started being a big part of my life when I was knee-high to a Jawa. According to my folks, Empire Strikes Back was among one of the first movies I ever attended. Then my father took me to see Return of the Jedi opening day.

Somewhere along the way, however, things changed. For years I would barely admit being a fan. I wouldn't admit I read several of the first wave of post-movie books. I wouldn't admit to watching the movies regularly, I wouldn't let anyone know I knew a boatload of useless Star Wars trivia, and I wouldn't be caught dead wearing a Star Wars shirt. Only geeks were big Star Wars fans and although I liked the movies, I wasn't a geek. Girls didn't like geeks and most of the girls I met wouldn't dare admit being big Star Wars fans even if they were.

All through junior high, high school, and my four years in the military I suppressed my Star Wars fandom for what could only be called "the sake of fitting in". Like most people who struggle with social acceptance in junior high and high school, I definitely didn't want to be an outcast. In the military, with it's alpha-male heirarchy, sci-movie geekdom is not looked highly upon - although I did hang with some folks who were fans and we did wait in line for three hours to see Episode 1 the night it opened.

In total, outside of seeing the releases and the sequels and reading Shadows of the Empire, I did very, very little to advance my fandom of Star Wars from the age of 14 to my mid-20s. I passed myself as a "normal" fan and suppressed my affection for something I grew up with. Sports and music were much more acceptable and I liked sports and music, so sports and music it was.

In my late 20s, not long after Episode 3 came out, I started to open up to Star Wars again. That's when I began committing my entire weekend to watching Star Wars marathons on Spike and read Vector Prime, the first book to kill off a major Star Wars character. That's also when when I dove back into the Extended Universe and started spending more and more time on Wookieepedia, filling in the gaps in situations and characters that developed in the 10 or so years I was out of the loop.

About this time I also started reading a lot of blogs and other non-professional, independent internet writing. I realized there were a lot of people like me. People who liked sports and Star Wars and music and let all their interests mutually co-exist in their lives. People who also dropped Star Wars references in their writing as they, like me, had been influenced creatively by the mind of George Lucas. People like Jason Fry, blogger at one of my favorite blogs "Fear and Faith in Flushing", a Mets blog heavy on writing and fan perspective and a huge influence on my work at Rays Index.

(I eventually found out Fry is also the author of several Star Wars books such as Star Wars: The Essential Atlas, The Secret Life of Droids, and Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare (yes, a military book about Star Wars!). Did I mention Fry quickly became one of my favorite writers?)

As I was rediscovering what I loved as a kid, the world was becoming cool with geek culture. While shows such as "Big Bang Theory" showed nerds in a semi-positive light (I think I have seen only two episodes ever), websites and popular internet memes based on geek culture grew in popularity. As did the development of online communities where more and more people started talking about their fandom. By the end of the 2000s, "geek", "nerd", and "dork" lost their negative connotation and were usurped by the very people formerly derogatorily described as such. Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe society's acceptance pushed me along, or maybe both were gaining the confidence to say "This is what I like. If you don't like it, I don't care."

The culmination of my Star Wars revival occurred in 2010 when I went to Star Wars Celebration V in Orlando. Although I was excited to go, I was a little intimidated upon arriving at the Orange County Convention Center. Again, my fear of being lumped in with "the geeks" and the "socially awkward uber-fans" played tricks on my subconscious. I told myself I was going to check out the convention and observe the fans and that was all. I was an observer, an admirer, but not really part of the community. I didn't think I wanted to be.

I was wrong.

As I wrote in my blog post describing the convention, I had a great time, despite my initial preconceptions. The people there weren't geeks. They were people just like me. People of all ages, races, creeds, colors, species, and planetary systems who had an admiration for Star Wars in some way, shape, or form. Although I was still slightly behind in my knowledge of the entire Star Wars timeline, there was no barrier of wisdom for enjoying the convention. As there were probably people there who had read every book and seen every movie and cartoon, there were probably people there who had only seen the movies. Maybe even less than that. I figured I was probably right around average.

I was an average Star Wars fan.

Also I mentioned in my blog post, my day at the convention ended by seeing Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi with hundreds of other fans. The viewing might have been normal for regular convention goers, but for me it was an awakening. There I was, surrounded by other people who knew these movies and watched them just as I had for over 20 years. After the movies were over, I knew there was no doubt I was part of the Star Wars fan community.

These days, my Pizza Hut Magic 8-Ball Yoda still sits by my work computer screen; I have Jason Fry's latest book sitting on my desk, waiting to be opened; I recently had fellow Rays fans send me a Rays commemorative Star Wars Day shirt;  I am sleeping on old school Star Wars sheets; and I couldn't resist buying an incredibly interesting looking Star Wars bootleg DVD set. I've accepted the fact that I am a Star Wars geek/nerd/uber-fan, even it means taking guff from the still-alpha-male dominated, non-nerd military culture I am working with here in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, for the rest of the world, Star Wars fans are no longer considered geeks and outcasts and nerds and whatever other insults the "in-crowd" used to throw their way. It is acceptable to be a Star Wars fan as Star Wars is more popular than ever. And as new fans enter the fold, I am proud to say I saw most of the movies opening day/night, own several copies of each movie, have a book shelf of full of Star Wars novels, I've been to a Star Wars convention, and I am a Star Wars fan.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Classic AfroSquad Photoshop Week Day 6



This week I am featuring several humorous photoshops created by the world-famous Snowman of the Afro-Squad. Snowman has been doing these pictures for years and I have been fortunate to be his subject of photoshop on a few occasions. The next few days will feature some of my favorites.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Classic AfroSquad Photoshop Week Day 5



This week I am featuring several humorous photoshops created by the world-famous Snowman of the Afro-Squad. Snowman has been doing these pictures for years and I have been fortunate to be his subject of photoshop on a few occasions. The next few days will feature some of my favorites.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Classic AfroSquad Photoshop Week Day 4



This week I am going to feature several humorous photoshops created by the world-famous Snowman of the Afro-Squad. Snowman has been doing these pictures for years and I have been fortunate to be his subject of photoshop on a few occasions. The next few days will feature some of my favorites.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Classic AfroSquad Photoshop Week Day 3



This week I am featuring several humorous photoshops created by the world-famous Snowman of the Afro-Squad. Snowman has been doing these pictures for years and I have been fortunate to be his subject of photoshop on a few occasions. The next few days will feature some of my favorites.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Classic AfroSquad Photoshop Week Day 2



This week I am featuring several humorous photoshops created by the world-famous Snowman of the Afro-Squad. Snowman has been doing these pictures for years and I have been fortunate to be his subject of photoshop on a few occasions. The next few days will feature some of my favorites.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Classic AfroSquad Photoshop Week



This week I am featuring several humorous photoshops created by the world-famous Snowman of the Afro-Squad. Snowman has been doing these pictures for years and I have been fortunate to be his subject of photoshop on a few occasions. The next few days will feature some of my favorites.

Monday, August 20, 2012

When Victory Tastes Like Wendy’s



Although humans have boasted about their ability to cook since man first learned to barbeque a brontosaurus, the “foodie” phenomenon that has erupted in the last few years has taken culinary narcissism to a completely new and annoying level. Few things make a meal worse than getting full on the food of a foodie as they meticulously fill you in with the details of their newest delectable delight.

On the other hand, nothing is better than beating the foodies at their own game. Especially with food their pretentious palates would never consider acceptable.

For several years, I worked with a group who took great pride in their culinary abilities. They brought in desserts, breakfasts, and even the occasional stew. They put a lot of time and effort into their food and everyone knew it. While it wasn't a competition, they had an amicable admiration of talent and tried to top each other with every creation.

On the first Friday of every May, these foodie friendships were put to the side for my company’s annual Cinco de Mayo Chili Cook-Off. With a small but significant prize and year-long bragging rights on the line, it was showtime for those who thought they could command a kitchen.

In my third year in the workplace, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and enter the chili cook-off. I wasn't much of a cook, but I had recently purchased a crockpot and was excited to try my hand at my first chili.

In mid-April, the announcement went out for chili cook-off contestants. Besides all the usual suspects, the cook-off also brought out several people who, like the culinary version of Christmas Catholics, only got involved for the big annual event. And then there was me.

Throughout the next few weeks, the upcoming cook-off was the talk of the office. Many of the prospective participants discussed strategies, ingredients, and how they thought they were going to do. Since my name was new to the list, a few even asked me what how my preparations were going. As their enthusiasm grew however, mine waned. Their increasing chatter made me dread the contest. It was all they talked about. I quickly regretted entering the contest. I wasn’t a cook, and if it meant being like them, I didn’t want to be. Despite my negativity, however, I still needed to submit an entry or face horrible workplace embarrassment.

At 10 pm the night before the chili cook-off, while all the other chilis in all the other kitchens of all the other workers were probably simmering in anticipation of the big day, I did what any enterprising person who had lost interest in a chili cook-off would do: I visited my local Wendy's and bought eight 99-cent chilis.

To my surprise, my order took only a few minutes. I wondered how long the chili I purchased had been simmering in the restaurant. Was it there since dinner or did they make a new pot for the late-night crowd?

Regardless, I had my chili. There was no rule that says I had to eat my own submission.

I drove back to my apartment and immediately poured each container of chili into my crock pot, added an unhealthy serving of hot sauce, and set the crock pot on “simmer”.

The next morning, I unplugged my submission, taped the lid to the crock pot, and drove to work. Seeing me with my concoction, several curious co-workers asked the ingredients.

“Something I threw together,” I replied.

That answer thankfully garnered a few laughs, in part I believe because of my rookie naivety. They didn’t consider me a threat, and I didn’t care. To be honest, besides the hot sauce, I really had no idea what was in Wendy’s chili.

Hours before the cook-off, I gave my creation a creative moniker that could tease but still hide its origin: “South of the Border Meets D.T.’s Daughter”. The name openly advertised the hot sauce I used (“S.O.B.: Sauces of the Border”) while slyly hinting the Wendy’s connection (“Dave Thomas = D.T.”). As lunch time approached, I wondered if the name was too revealing.

Ten minutes before noon, the chefs were told to bring their chilis to the outside picnic area. Carefully I carried my creation to the tables, placed the pot next to the other submissions, and taped on the name placard.

At noon, my co-workers poured out of the building, eager to taste the wide array of chilis. Before they could dig in however, a group of judges, including the head of my department, made themselves small bowls of each submission. Once the judges had their samples, the rush was on.

I personally sampled a few of my competitors’ chilis. They were quite good. With each spoonful, I could taste the care and quality of their work. Some chilis were full of flavor, others heavy on heat.

As the majority finished their lunch, the department head stood before the crowd.

“We would like to announce the winners of this year’s contest,” he exclaimed.

He then announced the third place runner-up, a newcomer. Everyone cheered, as someone had broken in the elite circle of chefs. Second place went the regular who had won the year before. Good for them, I thought as I kept eating.

“And the winner of the Chili Cook-Off is ‘South of the Border Meets D.T.’s Daughter’.”

I nearly spit out my mouthful of chili.

While my co-workers clapped, I got out of my seat and accepted my prize – a year membership to the local Costco. As I walked to the front, I was sure someone was going to out me, call me a fraud, and make me give up the gig. I half-contemplated outing myself, admitting my ruse, and handing the prize to the runner-up. That would have be the moral thing to do. But there was no rule against commercial entries and I submitted a pot of chili same as the next guy, even if I didn’t slave over a hot stove to create it.

After the contest, I returned to my office, carrying a nearly empty crock pot, and growing increasingly smug with victory.

I thought about giving the Costco membership to the local Wendy’s, as they played as big a part in my upset as I did. But I didn’t.

Like victory over the annoying foodies, it was mine. All mine.


(Picture from World's Recipe List)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Perfect Wedding



(This was originally published in the FSView and Florida Flambeau in 2002, but since they don't have my old articles online at all, I decided to post it here.)

According to the unwritten rules of society, marriage is an expected step for most people in their 20s. Following tradition, people should be on the lookout for that lifelong soulmate after their college graduation. Once this mutual discovery of partners is complete and two people decide they want to spend the rest of their lives together, marriage planning becomes horribly one-sided.

For example, every trip to the local magazine rack presents women with plenty of advice on the perfect wedding. These publications give tips such as what to wear, and most importantly, what the groom-to-be should be doing. Apparently, guys have no say in what should be one of the biggest days of their lives. This lack of input may either be the cause or the effect of a predominant male indifference towards the matrimony ceremony.

However, like the minute percentage of women who don't consider their wedding an event of epic proportion, there are some guys who have ideas on what they want to happen on their big day. I am of this small minority. Mine are trivial considerations and in no way alter the grand expectations of my bride-to-be.

My first request is during the planning stages of the wedding. Being somewhat unknowledgeable to the wedding gift procedure, I was recently introduced to gift registration. This is a fairly resourceful idea in which well-wishers buy specific gifts from specific stores. It makes the process very neat and orderly. I have noticed, however, that the usual suggested stores are entirely off-track. Most people want their gifts from Tiffany's, Dillard's, JCPenny's, or even Home Depot for those practical minded folks. Not me. I want my gift-bearers to shop at the Dollar Store. Why ask for one cup for 35 dollars when you can get 35 cups for one dollar? Imagine how many more gifts can be expected. As an added bonus, even the poorest relatives will feel like an integral part of the wedding present parade.

Request number two is slightly more involved. I want a midget, a clown, and an Elvis impersonator to not only be present at the ceremony, but also at the reception. (They must be three different people. I will not accept a midget with clown makeup and sideburns.) Their main purpose is to be in all official wedding photos. Attendees can be photographed with all, two, or only one of these esteemed guests. Who wouldn't smile for the camera knowing they are in the presence of comic and rock'n'roll greatness? I can only imagine how perfect a picture of Elvis, a midget, a clown, and my bride and I will look hanging on the wall of my future home.

My third and final request is that no eating utensils be used or supplied during the reception dinner. I have always been a big fan of the barbaric style of eating featured at Medieval Times and I want my friends and family to share in the joys of finger food. Although peas and spaghetti would be eliminated, entrees such as chicken wings, french fries, or even asparagus are still options. Plenty of napkins are a must of course, as it would appear uncultured if I wiped the barbeque sauce from a plate of ribs on my rented sky-blue polyester tux.

I know the hardest part of achieving these aspirations will be finding someone willing to accept my ideas. I would hate to invest months or years into a relationship only to see the girl of my dreams walk out when she fails to compromise on our wedding plans.

I am flexible, however. Skipping the ceremony, traveling to Vegas, and having a drive-thru wedding is okay as well.

As long as Elvis is there.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Legend of Uncle Kev



(After posting this, I searched online for Kevin Harbst a.k.a. "Uncle Kev". I eventually found and contacted his stepson on Facebook who replied and informed me that Kevin Harbst died of a heart attack in 2007. He was 44. According to his stepson, I "captured the essence of the man and his life damn near perfectly".)

Here is another one from the binders from an Article and Essay class I took in Spring of 2002. Interesting to read where my mind was at when I was 24. (Note: Some slight grammatical edits made based on the professor's comments.)

I’ve never had many long-term friends.  Most of my good friends last about three years before we go our separate ways.  That was the case while I was in the military, and it will soon be the case again next year when I graduate college.  All I am usually left with is many home addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, and hopes of hanging out with my friends again one day.

These hopes have become reality on several occasions.  I have traveled long hours to visit friends in Savannah, Miami, and even Chicago.  Many of my friends will also tell me when they are in the Tallahassee area, as several did during this year’s spring break.  One of the more interesting trips I have taken was to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to visit an old army sergeant I call “Uncle Kev.”

The trip to Hattiesburg was not exactly easy.  My truck began to overheat and I had to stop in a small Alabama town to let it cool.  I also got lost trying to find Highway 98 in Mississippi.  These problems added about an hour and a half to my expected four-hour drive.

“Hey Mike I didn’t think you were going to show,” Uncle Kev says as I exit the truck.  It seems weird having him call me “Mike,” in the Army I was only known by my last name.

“Sorry I’m late.  I had car trouble,” I reply.  Uncle Kev’s place is a shabby little trailer on a Hattiesburg side road about five miles from Camp Shelby, where he is stationed now.  If any more than one person lived in the trailer, it would be too small.

This was the first time I was able to hang out with Uncle Kev.  Army fraternization rules stated sergeants and lower enlisted soldiers weren’t able to get together off duty.  We always joked around while on duty, however.  I knew finding him was a must when I was discharged.

“So Uncle Kev, how’s the hoggin’ here?” I ask as I entered the trailer.

“Hoggin’,” or picking up extraordinarily large women (450 lbs or larger) with the intent for sexual pleasure, was a favorite subject of Uncle Kev’s.  He had supposedly written books on the subject.

“It’s not bad.  These southern boys know how to feed their women.  But I am having a problem getting them though that tiny doorway,” he replied.

Looking around, I could tell Uncle Kev was hurting financially.  He slept on a mattress in the left corner of the trailer.  Most of his possessions were in boxes filling up the entire right side of the residence.

For the rest of the night, as we caught up on lost time, Uncle Kev told me how he had gotten the shaft from his ex-wife in his recent divorce.  She received their two kids and two of their three cars.  He was left one car and a debt of over 40,000 dollars with no way to pay it off (nearly half of his army salary went to child support).

Uncle Kev also told me I was only the second person to visit him.  His son had spent a weekend with him a year earlier.  As the night continued, we drank some really cheap beer and listened to some songs from his extensive music collection (he had drawers full of tapes and boxes of records and CDs).  “We better get some sleep, tomorrow we are going to the casino,” Uncle Kev warned me.

The next morning at 8:30 am, after Uncle Kev returned from his mandatory hour of physical training, we got ready and drove to Biloxi, about an hour from Hattiesburg.  “I’m a regular there,” Uncle Kev told me, “we can eat and drink for free.”  I wondered why someone so far in debt would frequent a casino.

We arrived at the Biloxi casino by 10:30.  The situation was eerily Rain Man-esque, but unfortunately for Uncle Kev, I had no Dustin Hoffman-like abilities.  He gave me half of his spending money, 150 dollars, to play the slot machines.  I lost it all.  He didn’t do much better.  We totaled 300 dollars for six Heinekens and two lunches.

By about 3:00 we were on our way back to Hattiesburg.  I fell asleep for most the trip.  When I awoke, I asked Uncle Kev how long I had been out.  “I don’t know, I was asleep too,” he joked.  It may have not been a joke.

After shooting the breeze, listening to music, and drinking more cheap beer for yet another night, we went to sleep.  The next morning, I packed my things and prepared for my drive home.  Uncle Kev thanked me for visiting and wished me luck finding some good hogs in Tallahassee.

On my drive back I thought about Uncle Kev, feeling bad for him because of his financial situation and feeling even worse because he had very few people in his life.  At the same time I was glad I was included in his small circle of friends.  I only wish I could have helped.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Return of the Decigram and Decagram



In 4th grade, my teacher, Mr. Tomani, told my class story to help us remember our metric system. In the final line of the tale, a woman named "Milli Kilo" sent a deck of graham crackers to a gentleman named "Hector". When said by the Italian character in the story, the line "Milli Kilo centa Hecta deci deca gram crackers." listed the measures of the metric system. I don't know if Mr. Tomani invented it, or if the mnemonic device was passed down for generations before reaching me, but it worked: this simple way of remembering the metric system is still ingrained in my head.

Milli Kilo and Hector recently came to mind when I read a box of prescription medicine. Whatever happened to hecta (100x), deca (10x), deci (.1 x), and centa (.01 x)? I've never used them in my life. I've never even heard them used outside of the classroom. All I've heard is milli or kilo. My prescription, for example, was 500 mg. Shouldn't that be 5 decigrams? Why not drop the zeroes and use the measurements we all learn?

What would happen if society started using the lesser know measurements again? What if my prescription wasn't working as well as I though it should and I asked to be bumped to a 6 decigram refill or something even stronger? Would my doctor understand my request?

I bet the cost of his eight years of medical school he wouldn't understand something I learned in 4th grade.

Imagine if food labels advertised in more obscure measurements. Suddenly that Big Mac with its 62 grams of fat only has 6.2 decagrams. Sounds healthier, doesn't it? 6.2 is a lot less than 62.

If I ran a restaurant my nutritional chart would purposefully use deca and hecta. I'm sure I could pull the wool over the eyes of quite a few customers. I'd sell a four patty, triple cheese, double bacon burger and advertise only 11 decagrams of fat. I'd call it "The Double Deca".

Of course, the riches and the customers would come to a halt when Mr. Tomani walks in.

Milli Kilo and Hecta would not be happy.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Unemployed vets, liberal arts majors, and understanding the economy



A few months ago, I read an article on the increasing unemployment numbers for military veterans, especially those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. According to David Lerman of Bloomberg News, these veterans, especially those ages 18 to 24, have faced an increasing unemployment rate, “even as the national jobless rate declines”.

Lerman writes about several young military vets in the combat arms who fail to find gainful employment because their job skills don’t transfer to the civilian economy or they fail to communicate what skills they have to civilian employers.

Although I feel bad for anyone who wants to work but can’t find a job, here is the problem: too many recruiters are pushing kids to military jobs that have no bearing on the civilian economy. Jobs such as infantry, artillery, or even military intelligence are not jobs that translate well in the private sector. Without attractive private sector skills, young vets are forced to lean on leadership, discipline, and other intangible factors of their time in the military.  Their rationale is that those skills are so important, people would rather hire them and train them for a specific skill than hire someone with the skill who needs to be groomed to be a leader.

From my private sector experience, that’s not exactly true. Not all companies are looking for a military-style manager. And depending on what type of position needs to be managed, military management might not fit. Even as a manager, you still need to speak the language and understand the culture of the civilian job. Those are things people expect new managers to understand, otherwise you start at the bottom, where basic skills and not leadership experience are more important.

The ill fit of recently discharged young vets is not unlike those who graduate with Art History degree who wonder why the private sector doesn’t want to hire them. It’s because their skills are not marketable or they are not looking in the right places for their skills. Both of these groups, the young vets and the arts & sciences majors, need to understand what the economy needs. It needs computer programmers. It needs engineers. It needs scientists and mathematicians. It is also hiring financial experts, doctors, and web designers.

One should not aspire to be a middle manager without a niche.

In both cases, I blame the recruiters or the counselors. These are the people who should guide young people towards a career they will enjoy, yet one that fits the outlook of the nation. Too many of them are guiding people towards dead end jobs or degrees that are nearly impossible to fit the private sector.

Although they are only 18 to 21, individuals who sign up for the military or who are in college need to consider the economy when making decisions that will affect their future job potential. Especially if they think they will be moving on to other positions eventually. If a soldier loves being infantry and wants to be infantry for 20 years, God bless ‘em, that’s a career move. But if they are only considering being infantry for three or four years, and have no plan beyond that, like the art major who only takes classes because they are fun, that’s a problem.

Now before anyone criticizes me for being anti-military or anti-liberal arts, I am exhibit A on what I am talking about. I did four years in the military then received a degree in English/Creative Writing. Both of which are completely not useful in the civilian sector. I have only worked outside of the Department of Defense or affiliates for my time in college and four months. If I wanted a job in the private sector, I know I would need additional training. And that’s what the money from my trip to Afghanistan will probably go towards.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cheap Beer, Chow Halls, and the Cost of Consideration



About a year ago, I went drinking with a friend. Our chosen location of libation was a small, dark, grimy hole in the wall bar in St. Petersburg, Florida. The type of place frequented by college kids, hipsters, and other out-of-the-mainstream scene standards.

Despite their banners for 2-for-1 Pabst and other beer specials, I went for their top shelf and ordered an imported beer that ran me upwards of five dollars. My friend, on the hand, decided on the Pabst special, taking her first beer and arranging with the barkeep to have her second beer ready when she was done with the first.

After we found a table, my friend jokingly gave me a tough time for being one of the only people in the bar who didn’t order a beer special, Pabst or otherwise. Knocked back on my heels and slightly defensive at having my beer taste attacked, I told her I went through my cheap beer phase in college and because I was still living off the savings I accrued from the good job I was laid off from, I was going with a good beer. Since she had once told me she was a beer snob, I flipped the question and asked her why she bought the cheaper beer, implying of course, that the cost was reflective of the quality.

“When in Rome,” she said, smiling and nodding at our less than luxurious surroundings. As the night went on, we continued drinking, her downing two Pabst for half the cost of each one of my beers.

After she poked fun at my selection several times and suggested after each beer that I join her at the level of specially-marked selections, I finally deployed the often-used beer snob defense.

“Life’s too short to drink cheap beer,” I said. I then followed it up with an attack on her selection.

“I don’t know how you can drink that stuff,” I said.

Looking back, that might have been a little harsh, especially considering we had been drinking for a while at that point. But her cool, calm, collected response immediately made me eat my words off the foot I had so elegantly put in my mouth.

“Did it ever occur to you that this is all I can afford?” she asked.

I was silent. To be honest, it hadn’t.

I’ve been reminded of that night quite a bit lately here in Afghanistan.

On my base, there are two main dining facilities. When I arrived, they were both of the same poor quality. People told me they were among the worst on all the bases in the country. And considering there are over 100,000 troops from all over the world at numerous bases scattered all over Afghanistan, that’s bad. There was a joke that the day people stopped complaining about the over-cooked chicken, inedible lasagna, and meat of the day smothered in mystery gravy was the day they had officially been on the base too long.

About two months ago, however, the food at one of the dining facilities started to get better. It was a gradual change, starting with the appearance of individual boxes of cereal such as Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Apple Jacks to replace the giant self-serve dispenser of generic corn flakes. Then various flavors of single-serving milk boxes arrived – strawberry, chocolate, and even banana – regulating the generic milk and the styrofome cups to coffee supplements only.

According to word around the base, the improving dining facility was under a new contract, one that spent more on ingredients and brand-name foods. As the dining facility continued to progress, a spaghetti bar arrived, as well as a sandwich bar, a potato bar, and themed entrée nights, with highly passable, if not well-cooked, Mexican, Cajun, and even steak.

Soon the lines at the improved dining facility started getting longer as many people chose to eat at the place with the better selection, ingredients, and taste.

Unfortunately, not everyone was able to partake.

As part of the new contract at the new dining facility, the nearly 20 or so nations with troops on my base were forced to up their per-meal cost. In other words, instead of each country paying X per meal per customer, the new cost was now X+Y per meal per customer. For most countries, this wasn’t an issue. They paid and their personnel were able to eat better food.

But some countries opted not to pay. Perhaps they didn’t believe in the difference. Perhaps they didn’t have the allocated funds. Or perhaps they just couldn’t afford the increased fee.

I work in an office with at least one person whose country didn’t pay the higher per-meal cost. They are forced to still go to the remaining poorer quality dining facility. When it’s time for lunch or dinner I try not leave at the same time as they do to avoid going one way to my preferred location of dining while they go the other to where they have to go.  And if they ask if I want to go to lunch with them, I never say “No, I want to go to the good chow hall.” I join them. It’s not their fault their nations are not paying.

Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and realize the situation people are in before judging their choices. Sometimes it’s best to join them and partake in what options they have. Sometimes it’s best to put aside what you would prefer for the sake of friendships. They last longer than the taste of beer or Cinnamon Toast Crunch anyway.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

DJing, Wrestling, and the Art of Illusion



A few years ago, I saw DJ-entertainer RJD2 in concert in Ybor City in Tampa. I was not impressed. In my YouTube review, I said it was boring and all he was doing was pushing buttons. I didn't see the point.

A few weeks ago, highly famous DJ-producer-entertainer Deadmau5 dropped a bombshell on the Electronic Dance Music community when he claimed too many big-name DJs are only on stage pushing buttons. At first, I'll admit I was happy to read someone in the industry agree with me.

However, I am not so sure. Since writing an article on dubstep for the local newspaper and getting to know some DJs, I've grown to appreciate their art. In the last year, I've been to old school hip-hop shows where I could watch old school DJs spin vinyl and big dance/rave/EDM shows where I can't even see the DJ amidst the light flashes and masses of dancing bodies.

Right now, dance music is in. And that's ok. People want to go to a club to forget the outside world. A majority don't care what the DJ is doing. It's just like a wedding DJ in that regard. You don't see wedding DJs trying to steal the show from the bride and groom. The people want to party and that's what the DJ is there for. To put on a good show.

Some fans however, like to know how the trick is done. These are the fans who really don't care about the people, the crowd, or the lights. Those are nice, but these fans want to get down to the source. They want to see what buttons are being pushed. They want to penetrate the mass entertainment illusion and see where the magician actually hid the rabbit. For them, it may or may not be about reveling the trick, they just may want to appreciate the art and give the DJ credit where credit is due. Some might call them fan-boys, others hardcore fans, whatever their name, they are a demographic.

The same dilemma exists in pro wrestling. Like the new wave of EDM shows, most people go to see a pro wrestling show to be entertained. They want good guys and bad guys, storylines and surprises. Give them a good show and they are happy, whether the show is in a backyard or a major civic center or stadium. It's all wrestling to them.

However, like in EDM, there exists a demographic of wrestling fans who want to know how the soup is made. They don't just want to be entertained, they want to discuss storylines and characters, and analyze movements in the ring. They are the fans who chant "you fucked up" when they see a possible flub in motion. They look at wrestlers for their technical ability in the ring, not just how many people like or dislike them. As a matter of fact, more often than not, these fans look down on fans who don't view wrestling as they do. They project elitist attitudes to those who want only to be entertained. Sort of like what Deadma5 did for the EDM scene.

However, it's one thing for DJs to call out other DJs, just like it's ok for wrestlers to call out other wrestlers. It is a bit of hating, and probably shouldn't be done in Rolling Stone or other public venues, but it's inter-business talk among the profession. Especially where illusion is involved.

The public airing of dirty laundry in an entertainment field only feeds to the masses of fans who enjoy dissecting performances. Once that demographic becomes the majority, and the masses see the emperor has no clothes, then the party is over of the entertainment field. Those in the field, especially those who have made it while others are still trying to get theirs, shouldn't try to tear the house down from the inside.

And I don't think it is ok for fans to use the comments of performers to question another performer's ability. Especially if they have never been of the status of the original commenter. If a wrestler says John Cena can't wrestle or a DJ says Skrillex is performing by rote then that is their opinion based on being in the industry. Knowledge adds perspective and credibility.

I might not have liked RJD2, but I am just some guy with a blog. My opinion does mean squat compared to the opinions of one of his peers.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

33% through my Afghanistan adventure



Dear all,

Well, I have passed the latest milestone in my time here in Afghanistan. I have now been here for four months, 33% done. This month has been interesting to say the least. I started the month on night shift. A lot of lonely nights keeping watch in my office, but on the bright side, I did catch up on my movie watching and book reading. Then it was back to day shift, which makes the days go by much quicker, but are loaded with work. But then again, it's not like there is much else to do here.

When I am not working (or in the case of nightshift, just bored), I have been working on my stand-up comedy routine. I created almost 10 minutes of jokes in the last few months and have been rehearsing and rewriting them to be performance-ready. I made it on stage just the past Wed during karaoke night. Although I would love to say I left the crowd in stitches, in reality, I bombed in Afghanistan, and not in the usual way. It was bad. But I am going to keep practicing in my spare time and hopefully soon I might make someone laugh. It's something creative to do.

Four months also makes me sort of a veteran around the office. As I mentioned in previous emails, most of the people I work with, be they military or civilian, are here on individual orders. There are few whole units running around. So people are always coming and going. And in four months, I've seen almost my whole office turn over. I think by October there will only be two people there longer. And they are also on year long assignments, arriving about the same time I did.

I also actually got to drive a vehicle for the first time in a few months this month. That might not sound like a big deal, but when you walk everywhere on base and never leave the base, just driving a few people from one side of the base to the other gives you a strange feeling of familiarity.

This month's update is kinda short, I guess. Which makes me think that life here is getting kinda dull. But then again, I said it was interesting in the first sentence. Maybe what was once the extraordinary is becoming the routine. Which is a good thing.

Anyway, I am 66% to halfway done. And that means I am one day closer to having to figure out what I am going to do when I get home.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Wes Fif - "International Drive" mixtape review



Back in January, Wes Fif, one of the most popular rappers in Orlando, dropped a mixtape entitled "International Drive". The mixtape is "Named for both the happening Orlando entertainment strip - and Fif's goal to be a household name worldwide". If I was grading names of Orlando music releases, this would get an "A". I'm a sucker for double meanings, especially if they mean something special at the local level.

(I know I am crazy late in reviewing this. But I've been busy with the whole Afghanistan thing here.)

Having downloaded Wes Fif's previous mixtape after someone on twitter clued me in to his localness when I asked who was doing quality hip-hop in Florida, I decided to download "International Drive" and check out Wes Fif's latest after he talked about it on his twitter feed.

There are many things I liked about "International Drive". The beats for one, were very catchy. And Wes Fif has a Too Short-type flow that goes nice with the music. Most of the songs have a Florida theme, and I am always about supporting the local scenes of the state. And the production is a lot nicer than his previous offering. If given the chance, I would like to see Wes Fif in concert.

That said, I felt like "International Drive" was very one-dimensional. It's typical southern rap with braggadocio lyrics. There are songs about "hustlin", "cruisin"", being out with his boys, slaying other MCs, his haters, and trying to earn money. That's the whole album.

As I played "International Drive", I started think that there was no way this was an accurate reflection of Wes Fif's life. Perhaps coming from the home of Disney World and Universal Studios, Wes Fif was giving us another fantasy to admire. I'm not surprised, given the state of hip-hop today, and the amount of rappers who lean on these tropes, but I felt like there should be more substance than just materialism.

Wes Fif has a platform I think he should use for more than just fantasy rap. Chuck D once called hip-hop "the black CNN". Here is an MC who lives in the same area of Florida where Trayvon Martin got shot, the same area where Jackie Robinson was once kicked out of town, and an area still strife with racism. And he is rapping about how good he and his crew have it. Escapism rap at it's best. Like a romance novel written by a desperate housewife.

It's ok to have a club banger, a radio song, and maybe even also a song to cruise to on your album. But don't let the only song about a woman be about a girl you slept with who you want nothing else to do with ("Never In Love"). Biggie's "Me and My Bitch" and Apache's "Gangsta Bitch" will never be compared to Shakespearean sonnets, but they do show a level of positive attachment.

I'd also like to hear about Wes Fif's past on a song. What was it like growing up in Orlando? Give me some lyrical versatility. Maybe even some word play, some odd rhyme schemes, something. It's music, not life or death. Have fun with it. Unless the "G"-personality fantasy is Wes Fif's sense of fun.

It might seem like I am down on Wes Fif. Totally not the case. I liked "International Drive". But from Wes Fif the Orlando artist, I wanted more.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Church of Groove and Dissonance



(Here is a bit I wrote several months ago that intended to be in the front of a write-up of a concert I went to a posted about a year ago, but after I wrote the whole thing, I felt like I took way too long to get to the point. So I chopped this part off. But I still think is really good and being that I am not going to any more concerts in 2012, I guess this is the closest I will get to writing about live music until I get back to the states.)

According to most studies, roughly 70% of people believe in God. Of them, 40% or so attend a religious service weekly. Organized religion provides the sense of community, bonding, and support many people need to get through their daily grind. They look forward to their time of brotherhood, when they can gather and rejoice among like-minded believers.

Somewhere along the way, I opted out of organized religion. While I still believe in a higher power, religious organizations just aren't my bag. I understand their place and I have nothing against them, but they aren't where my soul seeks solace and camaraderie.

It might seem unorthodox to some, but I find my comfort at rock concerts. Not in huge festivals either, although those are fun, but in dark, smokey, sweaty, rock bars, where the music penetrates the mind, the crowd sways and ebbs as one, and the lead singer hold court like an ancient shaman. Where Dionysus dances on stage to the primal rhythms of life. Where the annoying repercussions of tinnitus stay with you for several days - an accepted unhealthy reminder of your mental inebriation.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Three months in Afghanistan - 25% done



Wow. A few days ago, I realized I have already been in Afghanistan for three months. Hard to believe, honestly. But time flies when you are having fun. Or when you are working 12 hours a day, everyday.

As the kids say, "same difference".

Three months in Afghanistan means I am pretty much confident in what I am doing and almost becoming a subject matter expert in my job, at least as far as the everyday rigmarole goes. Although I am working as part of a two-man team, during the last month the other guy had to leave Afghanistan for a few weeks and I was required to do the job solo. Which although I had to turn in some 15 hour days, made me fully understand the job top-to-bottom, inside and out. Which actually made for a better team when he thankfully returned.

In the past month, I have also been able to try some Afghan food. They have a very good rice meal that mixes brown rice with raisins, nuts, carrot slices, and lamb. It is tasty. Perhaps I will do the foodie thing and take pictures next time I eat local cuisine.

Working with local Afghans also has another interesting advantage: teaching American slang and terminology. I've mentioned before on this site that some of the locals I work with have an interest in American movies and watch them quite often on the office television. A few weeks ago, the movie "Dead Presidents" was the cinema du jour. That led to an interesting discussion on the term "dead presidents" which then led to a conversation on American money and who we have on our currency and why they are there. When one of the locals asked me if American presidents can put their own picture on the national currency it reminded me how little power our leaders have compared to more power-hungry rulers in other parts of the world. I think if an American president tried to replace Washington, Lincoln, Franklin or any of our founding fathers with his own visage he would be laughed out of office.

I've also stepped on to the "football pitch", or "soccer field" as it is known in America for the first time in 20 years. My predominantly international office routinely reserves the base field for soccer once a week. It is a great team-building event and helps bring together a lot of people from various countries who might typically keep their relationships work-related. Playing sports creates bonds of friendship and camaraderie. Needless to say, however, I was not very good. I was counselled quite often by some of my European teammates. But I wasn't that bad when put in goal. My Italian collegue complimented my play and one of my Slovak co-workers actually invited me out to the next week's contest. At this rate, in a year, I might be below average on the European scale. That's my goal.

Three months here also now makes Afghanistan my second longest military-based trip, surpassing my jaunt to Qatar a few years back and behind only my excursion to Bosnia back in 1998-99. So much is different between this adventure and the Bosnia mission. For one, communication. When I was in Bosnia, the internet was in its infancy and email was something I did maybe once a week. Today, as evident in this post, I am able to communicate with almost the same ease I would in the states. I can blog, tweet, post on Facebook, and most importantly, Skype. Back in 1999, video teleconferencing was barely an option, and was primarily for the married troops, and for only five minutes at a time.

Another interesting aspect of this trip compared to others has been my observation and understanding of the human side of people, both the Afghans and the other people who are here for whatever reason. Back in my military days and even probably a little beyond that, I don't think I cared as much and regarded the people around me as just playing accompanying roles in my journey. Now I ask them how they are doing and try to learn at least a little about them: where they come from, their family back home, where they want to go from here, etc. Whether I know them for a month, a week, or the whole year, it's best to make the best connections possible as we are all in this together and I might never know when I'll need their support or they might need mine. This might be based a bit on the fact that unlike my other trips, I came here by myself and will leave by myself. In this sort of environment, the people around me will come and go, again some for longer time than others.

Sorta like life.

In lighter news, I've been studying comedy a lot in my spare time, finally reading a book on the art I bought while taking a stand-up course a year and half ago. I've also been watching early episodes of Saturday Night Live almost every night and taking notes on what makes them funny. I am almost through Season 1 and have  Seasons 2-4 in my footlocker ready to be opened. This increased exposure to comedy has also led to me writing comedy bits about the base and working in Afghanistan. I hope to find my way on the base club's stage soon. It's going to be interesting performing in front of an international audience, but I'm going to give it a shot.

Finally, one last Bosnia-Afghanistan comparison: my trip to Bosnia was where I created the nom de guerre "Jordi Scrubbings". Here I am 13 years later writing on JordiScrubbings.com, still using the moniker. I guess the more things change ...