7/23/05

Time to say goodbye

Well folks, I guess this is it. I'm not sure I completely believe it myself, but this year has finally come to an end. Wow. I can't even begin to tell you how excited I am to finally be going back home. Before I get into the rest of what I have to say, let me pause for a quick second to answer a question that's been on everyone's mind (well, on Laura's mind at least) as my time here has drawn to a close. Yes, I do plan to continue blogging. It's funny -- last summer I barely knew what a "blog" was, let alone how much a part of my life this one was destined to become. I was simply looking for a way to effectively keep in touch with my friends and family back home, and it boiled down to either sending a mass email to everyone on my contacts list once a month or so, or doing this. I figured this was a little bit less intrusive and a little bit more user-friendly, so I went with it. Along the way I've discovered that not only do I enjoy it for my own sake, but it turns out that my readers have enjoyed it, too. I've done what I set out to do -- keep in touch with family and friends -- and I've even managed to strengthen some of those relationships. I've also managed to pick up a few "strangers" along the way -- people who've stumbled across the blog one way or another and enjoyed what they read. To me, that's just icing on the cake. The new blog will function to serve much the same purpose that this one has, namely keeping in touch. I've been surprised at the number of "long lost friends" that I've reconnected with through this website (some going as far back as seventh grade!), and I'd love to try and keep those connections strong. If writing a story or two every week or so about my life will allow me to stay in touch with those friends then I'm all for it. Plus, all of my family and relatives that are scattered all over the country will be able to stay a little bit more current on my life. You can find the new blog over at http://dltbgyd.blogs.com/. There's not much there yet, just a short (and hopefully educational) post about the title of the web page. Give me a week or so to get back to the States and get settled, and then you can expect some regular updates. With that out of the way, let's get on to the rest of this post. I'll start by answering a question that was posed by Jen, one of the aforementioned "strangers" who came across this site and then kept coming back for more. She asks, and I quote, "Are you glad that you made the decision to spend a year of your life in Afghanistan? Do you have any regrets?" I have two answers for those two questions: YES, and NO, respectively. I am glad that I made the decision to spend a year out here, and I have no regrets at all. None. Now the question that's not asked directly, but is most definitely implied, is "why?" To properly answer that, let me give you just a little bit of background. (my apologies to the family and friends that have heard this all before...but you know what? This is my last post, which means it's supposed to be something of a summary. In order to properly summarize, sometimes you have to rehash material that's already been discussed. So deal with it). A little over one year ago, I was struggling. More specifically, I was struggling financially. Don't get me wrong -- I had a job and my needs were met, so things weren't desperate. But things weren't exactly wonderful, either. I found myself a couple years deep in the "real world" (a term that I despise, by the way), and I was growing more and more cynical by the day. See, there's this thing you have to deal with in the "real world" called financial responsibility, and I wasn't very good at it. My bills were getting paid, but I was growing increasingly frustrated with how little of my paycheck I got to keep for myself. Not surprisingly, it was during this time that I discovered and began to appreciate the Libertarian Party, but I digress... It wasn't just the government that was taking my money, in fact they weren't even taking the biggest chunk of it. I was also losing money each month to three different credit cards (my own stupid fault, I know), three different student loans, an auto loan, and a company that was supposed to be helping me consolidate all this debt and pay it off faster. After everyone took their share, I discovered that I had less than half of my monthly income left over. I used that remainder to write checks for rent, car insurance, a cell phone, food, and gas, and when it was all said and done I usually had less than $100 left over each month for myself. I realize I'm being fairly candid here, but I just want to paint an accurate picture for you. One tank of gas to get myself to the mountains and back for a weekend of snowboarding, and I'd blown a third of my disposable income for the month. $100 or less each month that I could spend on clothes, CDs, movies, beer, snowboarding, and general entertainment, and that's if I didn't save a dime of it. You can see why I wasn't doing a whole lot of dating at the time ("how 'bout some Ramen at my place?" wasn't exactly bringing the ladies running). When I finally decided to tighten the belt and start saving money, I had even less disposable cash, and even then it took me six months to save up less than four hundred dollars. At the rate I was going, it would take me two years to afford a decent, one week vacation. It wasn't a pretty picture, and I wasn't happy with it. At all. That's when I discovered the opportunity to spend one year of my life in Afghanistan. It sounded crazy at first, but I then noticed how much they pay. Suddenly it was a very, very tempting idea. In return for one year of my life, I was promised enough money to pay off ALL of my debt, with a chunk of change left over. It didn't take long for me to sign on the dotted line and get on a plane. In the one year that I've been here, I've seen and experienced more than I could ever hope to condense into one short essay. I've visited a side of the planet that I never thought I'd see. I've seen how the people of the country of Afghanistan live, both in the big city of Kabul and in the small village of Jegdalek. I've observed a little bit of what it is that our government and our military are trying to accomplish over here. I've met people from more countries than I can name, and forged some friendships that I hope will last a lifetime. I've taken a vacation to Europe, a lifelong dream, and I did it a lot sooner than I ever could have hoped, given my situation back in the States. I've fallen in love with the idea of travel, with the prospect of seeing as much as I can possibly see on this vast Earth. I've endured a lot, but I've learned a lot, too. Most importantly, after one year in Afghanistan, I've accomplished the very goals that I set out to achieve. I can now proudly say that I am 100% debt free. On top of that, I have a significant sum of money saved up. I'm not "rich" by conventional standards, but the feeling I get from being financially secure says I might as well be. If you'll allow me to gloat just a little bit, I'll tell you a story that would have been nothing more than a daydream before I left the States. When I get home, I plan to take two months off. That's two months with no job, and no income, and it doesn't stress me out at all. My calendar for the next two months is already full of trips and social outings that I'm eagerly looking forward to. As soon as I get home, I'll be on a plane to Washington state to visit some family and friends for a few days. I've even talked half of my cousins and an aunt and uncle into coming along with me to the Reel Big Fish/Catch 22 show in Spokane. As soon as I get back home to Colorado, I'll be treating several friends to three amazing ska and punk shows (including the two bands I've just mentioned) in Denver, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins. On the 10th of August, the day after the third show, I'll be hopping in a car with my brother and heading out to Las Vegas for three or four days of the kind of fun that only Vegas can provide. When we get back from that trip, I'll be looking forward to the arrival of an old high school friend who will be in town around the 18th or 20th. On the 23rd, I've got plans to see another great show in Denver with a new friend of mine. I'll spend the very next weekend canoeing down the Colorado River and into Moab, Utah with my immediate family. A few days later I'll be hopping in the car with my sister and road-tripping across the Midwest to visit a whole different set of cousins/aunts/uncles and a grandma. We'll return just in time for my sister's wedding, and then a few days later I'll celebrate my birthday. When it's finally all said and done, and I've recovered from whatever is to become of my birthday party, I might finally start to think about getting a job. Maybe. It's going to be two months of relaxation, fun, vacations, socializing, and just plain bliss. It's a break that I never would have been able to take had I not spent a year in Afghanistan, and I can't wait. It's not just the "break" that I'm looking forward to -- it's the fact that I'll be able to do some things financially that I'd never dreamed possible. I'll be able to buy a car, in cash. I'll also be able to re-accumulate some of the material possessions that I sold before coming out here -- I plan to buy myself a new snowboard and maybe a new computer. Who knows, maybe I'll even start dating again. I'm trying not to be entirely short sighted with my hard earned cash, so I'm sure a significant amount will get set aside for retirement and other savings. The point is that I am now experiencing a level of financial freedom that I never dreamed of before. I've endured a year of separation from my family and friends, a year of working a job that I don't enjoy, a year of dealing with meager living conditions, but it has all been worth it. Am I glad that I made the decision to spend a year of my life in Afghanistan? Yes. Do I have any regrets? No. Wholeheartedly. Emphatically. No. Thanks to everyone for reading this website for the past several months, for being a part of my journey. In a matter of days I'll be able to say that to you face to face, to see your smile and give you a hug. Cheers to that.

7/20/05

Am I really leaving so soon?

Sorry for the few days between posts there -- I haven't really been feeling my best lately. I ate something on Saturday night that didn't sit well with me, and I've been doing a lot of 'rest and recover' since then. Since you're not here to read the details of my intestinal functions, I'll go ahead and get to something a little bit more pleasant... I'm leaving here in 5 days! How's that for pleasant? That news qualifies as downright righteous, if you ask me. It's been a weird few days since I got back from Kabul (upset stomach aside). I don't think it's really sunk in yet that I'm leaving this place. For good. On some level it probably has, but on another it just feels like "life as always." I remember when I made the decision last summer to come out here in the first place, and it felt like such a huge, life-altering thing. I'm moving to Afghanistan. For a whole year. I remember the weeks which followed that decision -- weeks that were filled with moving, packing, selling, paperwork, and tying up all the loose ends to ensure a smooth departure from the USA. Those weeks were a bit of a blur, but I distinctly remember a feeling of nervous excitement that permeated every single thought and action during that time. Life was a bit surreal then. "Am I really about to move to Afghanistan?" was a question I asked myself over and over again in those weeks. Sure enough it was real, and I did it, and now it's almost over. I've received two different emails from two different family members in the last few days, both expressing the same sentiment. The emails say things like "[it's] pretty unbelievable that your year is up" and "I can hardly believe that the year is coming to an end. I just think it is so great that you were able to do this whole thing." When I read things like that, I have to force myself to stop and realize that this year really is over. I guess that is pretty unbelievable. In the weeks leading up to these final days, I would occasionally feel a twinge of that same nervous excitement that I felt last summer. I fully expected the feeling to increase in both frequency and intensity as I drew closer to the end, but now here I am, a mere five days away from leaving, and I'm not sure I'm really there yet. "Am I really leaving in just a matter of days?" is the new question that I've been asking myself. I'm not going to expand on this too much, or try to figure out what it "means," if anything, that I'm not feeling terribly nervous or excited about leaving here. It's simply something I've observed. I assumed that by this point I'd be much more emotional (not that I've ever been one who's terribly emotional), when in fact life has continued to feel quite normal. I'll let you know how it feels when I actually step on that plane. In lighter and not so "deep" news, going to work lately has been GREAT. If you've ever quit a job before, you know what it feels like to show up for work every day knowing that you're on your way out the door. It's a fantastic feeling. When you can nonchalantly utter the phrase "what are they gonna do, fire me?" and mean it, it's impossible not to smile. Life is good. We'll see how I feel about that when I'm back home and jobless, but right now, for a few more days, life is good. Yesterday at work, I got comfortable in my chair and took a nap. I slept for a good 1/2 hour, right there at my desk, and no one seemed to care. I love that nobody expects anything from me anymore, as if the fact that I'm leaving soon frees me from all responsibility whatsoever. Today I don't think I was even at work for more than a couple hours. I showed up at 10, left at 11, and didn't come back until around 1 p.m. I left again at a little past 2 and didn't come back until almost 5. I even ran into the boss today and he asked "when are you leaving?" "Monday," I answered. His next question was "are you going to be at work this week?" as if he really didn't care and it was genuinely up to me. In that case, maybe not! Yes sir, life is good. I may not be terribly nervous, but I suppose there is a little bit of excitement there. Every time I receive an email from someone back home, or read a quick update on their blog, I can't help but think "I'll be seeing you soon. Face to face, in real life." It's hard not to be just a little bit excited about that.

7/16/05

All you naysayers can stop worrying about me now

I made it back from Kabul safe and sound. I arrived here at Bagram at around 1430 today after a much more pleasant drive up than I had on the way down. I give the credit to the driver, who was much better than the last one I had. I guess I'll give you a quick rundown of the rest of my little vacation to Kabul. I think I left off on Thursday, which was a pretty quiet day for me. It got much livelier that night, when my good friend Jeremy who lives/works down there took me out to a Croatian restaurant near the safehouse. The interior and atmosphere of the restaurant were much higher quality than I expected, and the food was also outstanding. One quick story about our dinner there: we walked in the door and the host asked us right away if we had a reservation. We gave him a confused look to indicate that we didn't know we needed a reservation, and the host decided to accommodate us anyway. He took us to an empty table at the corner of his empty restaurant -- a restaurant that remained empty the entire time we were there. It struck me as odd that the guy was so quick to ask us if we had a reservation when it looked to me like the reservation book was completely empty for the night. Oh, one other unique thing about this particular restaurant is that it's located just outside of the US safehouse and is geared towards foreign nationals. They have armed guards at the door and no local Afghans are allowed inside as a safety precaution for the Westerners who like to eat there. Interesting. We spent the rest of the evening at a nightclub, another "no locals allowed" kind of place, although I wouldn't imagine that too many Muslims are into the whole nightclub scene anyway. We had a good time, and got to hang out with a wide variety of foreign transplants from the US, Europe, and Asia. It was a cool place, and I never would have thought that such a venue existed anywhere in Afghanistan (see people? This is why it's important to get off the base and into the cities every once in a while). One interesting note about the nightclub -- I met the owner, and I learned that his mom graduated from Colorado State University. What a small world. Friday was another down day for me. I didn't get into the city to visit an orphanage or shelter like I'd hoped, but I definitely enjoyed another relaxing day off. This little trip to Kabul was as much of a mini-vacation as it was anything else. On Friday night my buddy Jeremy was working, so I went out with two other acquaintances to a German restaurant in town. I ate veal schnitzel, and once again the food was very impressive. I don't know if it was really that good or if I've just been eating Army food for too long, but I definitely ate every last morsel on my plate. The guys I was with were telling me that this German restaurant is a training ground for the locals to learn the skills of serving and bartending, with the goal of eventually moving up to bigger and better establishments. I don't know if that's true or not, but it makes a good story. After dinner we hung out at the bar and definitely had our share of Kostriker, a (really good) dark German beer. One of the guys I was with even bought me a Kostriker stein, which is an awesome souvenir. I don't know anybody else who's got a German beer stein that was purchased at a restaurant in Kabul, Afghanistan. This morning (Saturday) I got out of bed in time to head over to the base with Jeremy and get some breakfast, after which we left to play 18 holes of golf. Okay, so it was only video golf on the Xbox in his room at the safehouse, but we got a kick out of saying that we'd played 18 in Kabul. After the video games it was time for Jeremy to call it a "night" (he works nights, so 1230 is way past his bedtime) and time for me to pack up and meet my ride. I said goodbye to Jeremy, which was a little bit weird because I just saw him a few weeks ago, but it was just hitting me that I might not see him again for quite some time. Plus it's still just a little bit weird to be saying goodbye to a good friend when we're both in Afghanistan. We've got tentative plans to meet up in Europe over Christmas, but if that doesn't work out I probably won't see him again until March when he comes back to the States on vacation. Of course, that assumes that I won't be back out in this part of the world by then, which is still kind of up in the air... (it's a long story folks -- don't ask. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it). So here I am back at Bagram, with only 9 days left before I start making my way home. I'm not sure that's really sunk in yet, either. I've still got a fair bit of packing and shipping to do, so I should probably wrap this up for now. I'll leave you with a couple of pictures, although I'll warn you that my photos didn't turn out as great as I would have liked. The shots I did get aren't terrible, I just didn't end up with enough shots of the "life" of the city of Kabul. At any rate, here's a quick sample: This is the UNO office in Kabul that I mentioned in my last post: These are two small deer that are kept as pets at UNO Kabul: Some apartments (and the front half of a cab) in Kabul: The ISAF dining area (see last post): Storefronts (and traffic) in Kabul: A UN vehicle on the roads of Kabul: The US safehouse I stayed in (view from the roof): A hillside neighborhood of Kabul: Some tents (for farmers, maybe? or shepherds?) in the middle of nowhere between Bagram and Kabul: This pic is from the little town of Bagram that sits just outside of Bagram The Army Base. I was trying to snap the photo out the window of a fast moving vehicle, so it's not a great shot. I was trying to get a good photo of two little girls, and I barely caught them in the lower right side of the shot:

7/14/05

Greetings from Kabul

Some of you were a bit wary about me making a trip down to Kabul, but I did it anyway. This has been a goal of mine for months now, and I'm excited to have finally done it. Let me give you a quick background as to why I was so anxious to get down here: Bagram is entirely self-contained and isolated from the rest of the world. One of the most frustrating things about having spent a year in Afghanistan is that I haven't really spent a year in Afghanistan. I've been cooped up inside a US military compound. All I see are US soldiers, US military vehicles, US planes and helicopters, eat US food, watch US television via satellite, and on and on it goes. Now, that's not entirely a bad thing, but the point is that you could take Bagram, move it to South America, then tell me it's Afghanistan and I'd never know the difference. I never see the locals, never visit the towns, never experience life outside of these fortified walls. Sure, I took a day trip to the village of Jegdalek on Christmas eve, and that was truly an amazing visit, but it lasted all of about six hours. I've been here in this country for over 7200 hours, and I've spent a grand total of 6 of those outside of the base. That's pathetic, and it's exactly why I wanted to see Kabul so badly before I left the country. Now that I've (hopefully) justified myself, let's get on with the story... I left Bagram Wednesday morning at roughly 0800. I had managed to track down some military guys who drive down to Kabul and back twice a week, and they had room for me on this particular convoy. I showed up at the meeting point at 0730, and 1/2 hour later we were off. The drive was quite an adventure. It was a two-vehicle convoy, and we were in the rear. All the stories I'd heard about these convoys driving like maniacs were true. We never got going terribly fast -- we stayed below 100 kph (62 mph) -- but it was a whole lot faster than I'd traveled in a vehicle in months. On top of that, the road between Bagram and Kabul is terrible. Potholes and randomly placed speed bumps are common throughout the 70-mile trek. The convoy drivers are taught to go as fast as they can as often as then can, but they're constantly slowing down to dodge holes in the road or negotiate traffic. It's not uncommon to be going 95-100 kph, then abruptly hit the brakes to dodge an obstacle, then immediately speed back up again. Our driver hit the brakes so suddenly at one point that we were literally skidding on the asphalt. The bad road also makes for a really bumpy ride -- I eventually lost count of how many times my head hit the roof of the vehicle. I'm surprised we still had a suspension when we got down to Kabul. The great part of the ride was getting to see all the activity along the way. We drove through the small town of Bagram which sits just outside the military base, and it was wild to see all the shops and storefronts along that main road. I took a few pictures, and I'm hoping to take plenty more on the way back. I also saw several farms and shepherds in the fields along the road, and even a few camels walking around. We also passed several brick-makers, who were easy to spot by the long rows of bricks that were neatly laid out in the sun to dry. Once we reached the city, our first stop was UNO. I had no idea was UNO stood for when the driver announced it as our first stop, but I figured it had something to do with the United Nations. Imagine my surprise when we pulled up to the building and I read the sign: "University of Nebraska at Omaha Education Press." Sure enough, the University of Nebraska at Omaha has a press office in Kabul, Afghanistan. I looked it up on the web later (read it here), and UNO claims it as the largest and most successful printing enterprise in Afghanistan. The website lists the US base at Bagram as one of its customers and I can vouch for that, because there we were picking up some magazines that had been ordered from Bagram. After taking some pictures and helping load the magazines in our SUV, we were all invited inside for some tea and cookies. The people were unbelievably hospitable, and the tea and cookies were great. After we'd relaxed for about 20 minutes, the Army guys decided it was time to head out. Next stop was Camp Eggers, the main base in Kabul and my destination. On our way there we passed through the busier part of town -- I guess you can think of it as "downtown" Kabul. The city is larger and livelier than I expected, and the highlight was negotiating a rather large traffic circle on our way to the base. This particular traffic circle wasn't quite as large as the one around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but it definitely beat the heck out of anything I've seen in Colorado. The best part was that, much like the circle in Paris, there seemed to be no rules or protocols whatsoever for getting around the circle and onto the road you needed (come to think of it, there doesn't seem to be any rules for driving anywhere in this country). It was every car for itself in there, and since I wasn't driving I got to sit back and enjoy the fun without stressing it. We finally made it to the base, where I thanked the soldiers for the ride and then proceeded to track down my Help Desk counterparts. I found Roger and Casey, two guys I know fairly well. Roger is the HD Lead in Kabul, and he and I had met back in January at a HD Lead meeting in K-2. Casey worked with me at the Bagram HD for a few weeks before heading down to Kabul, and we discovered that we also used to work together at the Microsoft Help Desk back in the States. We didn't know each other back then, probably because he worked on a different team and always on night shift. Anyway, the first two guys I ran into at the base in Kabul were Roger and Casey, and they were on their way out. They offered to take me by the "Casino House" to drop of my gear, so I took them up on it. The Casino House is a safehouse just outside of the base, and it's where all the ITT civilians live. Roger and Casey showed me the room where my buddy Jeremy lives, so I walked in to drop off my gear. Jeremy and I said hi, but we didn't talk long because he was on his way to bed. It was roughly 1100 at that point, and Jeremy works nights. Since he was about to crash for the "night" I decided to tag along with Roger and Casey, who were headed out to (what else?) fix some computer issues. Our first stop was the American Embassy, which of course was awesome to see. We weren't inside for long, but at least I can say that I've seen the inside of the place. Our next stop was ISAF, the compound where the ISAF troops live. ISAF stands for International Security Assistance Forces, and they're a branch of NATO. We have a few ISAF troops at Bagram -- mostly Romanian and Polish troops -- but not nearly the presence they have in Kabul. We ate lunch at the ISAF compound, which was awesome. In addition to the good food, it was cool to see such a diverse gathering of international troops. We ate outside on a large patio, and as we passed a table of German soldiers I heard one of them make a comment, in English, about my Colorado Avalanche hat. I got a huge kick out of that because I've had countless American soldiers ask me what the "A" logo on hat is all about, and yet this German soldier in Afghanistan knows exactly what it is. God bless the Europeans for being hockey fans. We went back to the base after lunch, and Roger proceeded to give me a tour of the place. It's a much smaller compound than Bagram, but it was cool to see. I got to say hi to Robby and Becky, who I've mentioned on this blog before. Both were excited to see me make it down -- apparently a lot of people talk about visiting Kabul but never actually follow through. Becky said she'd try to get me hooked up on a trip into the community (i.e. to visit an orphanage or shelter) on Friday (tomorrow), although I haven't heard from her yet so I'm not sure if that will happen. During Roger's tour of the base we also had the unpleasant fortune of bumping into Mike, Dave, Herb, and Jim. These four guys are varying levels of bosses, from the Kabul Site Lead all the way up to the Project Manager, who is the guy that oversees all of the company's government contract work in this region. The PM is the kind of super big boss that works directly under a VP and gets treated like royalty. We're all supposed to love him and respect him and bend over backwards for him, but I'm too close to leaving to really care about any of that. Anyway, there we were making excruciating work-related small talk with all these big bosses, when one of them decides to invite us to join them for dinner. Roger and I kind of looked at each other, but since neither of us could come up with a valid excuse on the spot, we accepted. I'm not so sure we really had a choice, anyway. The cool part of going out to dinner was that it was an excuse to get off of the base and see some of the city again. The restaurant was called The Great Country, and was conveniently located right across from the Mustafa Hotel where all the big bosses were staying (they couldn't get housing on base). I sat in the back as we drove out to the restaurant, and as usual I was completely mesmerized as we drove into town. It's just unbelievable to see a different culture, especially one so vastly different from my own. The dinner was bearable, considering the fact that it was a boring, work-related, "executive dinner" type of thing. The food itself was really good though, and made up for the lack of any social atmosphere. It was a Chinese place, and I mean real, authentic, Chinese food. FYI - when the Chinese dice a chicken, the dice the whole chicken, bones and all. Just something to be aware of if you ever decide to go out for Chinese food in Asia. After dinner we bid farewell to the bigwigs, and the rest of us decided to head out for a nightcap. This is where it got really fun, and I'm not even talking about the bar. It was the drive to the bar that was an adventure. Roger was driving, but Mike (the Site Lead, and Roger's boss) is a terrible backseat driver. Roger reluctantly followed Mike's directions, and before long we were extremely lost. We somehow found ourselves on a very narrow road made of uneven dirt and rock, nowhere near the city lights and paved streets that we should have been on. We drove through alleyway after alleyway, trying desperately to find our way back to the main part of town. In doing so we traversed several roads that should not have passed for roads (it's a good thing we were in an SUV -- we never would have made it down those streets in a car) and saw several parts of town that I'm sure no one in the car had seen before. We passed marketplaces, neighborhoods, huge houses, and much smaller dwellings. We even drove past two separate burned out tanks that I assume have been left abandoned since the USSR invasion of Afghanistan back in the 80s. The houses and shops and neighborhoods just sprung up around them. It was an unplanned but awesome little diversion because I knew that I had gotten to see a taste of what Kabul is really like. We eventually found our way back out to the main part of town, and not long after that we arrived at the Happiness Restaurant. We walked in and discovered that were the only patrons of the Happiness, a small Chinese place that was staffed by a Chinese woman and her daughter. We were all still full from dinner, but we ordered a round of Heinekens to get us started. Mike invited Shalin (I have no idea how her name is spelled, but it sounds like "shah-lynn"), the Chinese girl, to join us. She spoke enough English to get by, and we had fun trying to teach her more English while she taught us some Chinese. We proceeded to hang out for a while and order a few more rounds of beers, and at one point we were served a tray of watermelon slices. I just thought that was worth mentioning because watermelon isn't exactly the kind of "bar food" I'm used to getting in the US. We had a great time at the bar, and although I forgot my camera, I did leave the place with a "souvenir" in the form of a handwritten Chinese phrasebook courtesy of Shalin. We made it back to the Casino house at a little after midnight -- a long and eventful day that for me had begun at 0630 in Bagram. I was exhausted, and after a short phone call to touch base with Jeremy (what was at work back on the base at this point) I crashed. I woke up initially at around 0800, although I fell back asleep and didn't get out of bed until around 1100. I haven't done much of anything today, just relaxed and enjoyed a day of vacation and recovery from the very full day I had yesterday. I'm sitting at the Casino house right now, and Jeremy is finally waking up. He's got the night off tonight, so we'll probably go hit another restaurant this evening, in addition to whatever else we decide to do. I plan to be here for another couple of days -- ideally I'll head back to Bagram on Saturday if I can find a ride. I'll keep you posted, and I'll try to throw up a few pictures of Kabul as soon as I have a chance.

7/11/05

I can't eat, I can't shower...but they still give me internet access

So I’ve had quite the eventful day, although originally I wasn’t going to tell you about it. That happens sometimes out here –- things go down that are most definitely blog-worthy, but that aren’t necessarily supposed to become public knowledge. Such has been the case today. As usual I went to bed fairly late last night, although it could have been worse –- I killed the light at a little past 0130. I was soundly sleeping, far off in dreamland somewhere, when I was suddenly startled by three or four loud thuds on the wall of my room. It took a second before I was roused to full consciousness -– at first I thought I may have been dreaming. That’s when the door to my room opened and I saw “The Captain” standing there in full battle gear. “Josh, get up!” he said. “We’ve got an Alert and need you outside for accountability.” I rolled over and looked at the clock. 0530. Awesome. I hadn’t been up that early since God-knows-when, and certainly hadn’t been awoken that abruptly in much, much longer. I drug myself out of bed, and as I was putting on my shoes and “battle rattle” gear I kept wondering to myself why I had to go outside. “They know I’m here,” I kept thinking. “The Captain just saw me. Doesn’t that suffice for accountability?” I walked outside and joined all the other poor souls who’d been drug out of bed at “oh-dark-thirty” –- interestingly the first thing I noticed was that it’s actually surprisingly light out at 0530. So we’re all standing there, rubbing the sleep out of our eyes -- no one’s talking because no one’s in a great mood. I’m fairly sure half of us would have been content to lie down and go back to sleep right there on the ground. About ½ hour later they finally decided that we’d all been accounted for, and we were allowed to return to our rooms. The catch was that we weren’t allowed to leave our little compound under any circumstances. Thank God I have a coffee maker in my hut. I decided not to go back to sleep, and instead started some coffee and booted up the computer. I wrote a couple emails and fooled around on the web for roughly an hour before I headed back outside and bumped into my boss. “Are we allowed to go eat breakfast?” I asked him. “No,” he said, “We can’t go anywhere until they give the All Clear.” Sweet, now we’re not even allowed to eat. I went back to my room and started rummaging through boxes of months old junk food, when the boss came in and rescued me. “I was wrong,” he said, “We’re allowed to go eat, but only at the small DFAC right outside of our compound.” Thank God. I checked out with our compound’s “gate guard” (a new position that was hastily thrown together due to this alert), headed to the DFAC, and ate the first breakfast meal I’ve had in a months (I usually oversleep breakfast). It was actually really good. I left the DFAC and walked back into the compound, where I proceeded to check back in. I told the gate guard that she might as well leave me marked down as absent, because I was just going to grab my things and then head out to the shower. “Nope,” was the gate guard’s response, “you can’t leave to shower. Only to eat.” You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. “Can I go to work?” I asked her. She thought about it for a sec, and replied that I probably could but would need to get approval from The Captain first. I tracked down The Captain, and much to my relief he approved the 30-yard walk from our compound to the building I work in. I showed up at work at 0830, where I’ve now been stuck all day. We’re on total lockdown here –- I’ve been outside a few times to use the bathroom, but that’s it. The DFACs have been closed, and as a result I didn’t have much for lunch. Our military representatives were authorized to leave the compound to pick up box lunches for us, which consisted of stale sandwiches and chips. It wasn’t great, but it was food so I ate it. I figured a good meal at dinner would make up for it. No such luck however -– the email just came in as I am writing this to inform us that the DFACs will remain closed for dinner and midnight chow tonight. Looks like it’s MREs or another enticing box lunch for dinner. The DFACs are tentatively scheduled to re-open for breakfast tomorrow. It remains to be seen whether I’ll be allowed to shower tonight. So what’s the cause of all this fuss? Well, that’s the part I wasn’t sure I was supposed to tell you. I’m still not sure it’s something that the military wanted to get out, but I have no qualms telling you now because it appears it’s already been leaked to the press (for the record, it wasn’t me that leaked it). I saw the story here first. You can read another version here. All I’ve got to say is, I really hope they catch these guys.

7/8/05

Guest Post: “The Stroke And Stride”

I didn’t write this story, but I did edit it for clarity/spelling/grammar. It comes to us courtesy of my brother, an inspiring young man whose middle name is “Adventure.” Seriously, that really is his middle name -- he had it legally changed and everything. Unlike his older counterpart, my brother is relentlessly athletic. He recently ran his first marathon, crossing the finish line at almost exactly 4 hours, which is an extremely impressive time considering he didn’t even train for the thing. That’s my brother -- the kind of kid who’ll just up and run 26 miles without thinking twice about it. It’s completely insane and completely inspiring at the same time. His latest quest has been to delve into the world of the Triathlon. In order to further this goal, he recently competed in a “stroke and stride” -- basically a Triathlon minus the biking. He wrote me an email to tell me the story, and I thought it was quite entertaining. I’ve obtained his permission to retell the story here, and I’m doing so because I think you all might get a kick out of it. Let the fun begin... So in an attempt to keep up my athletic ways, I headed out tonight to do my first “Stroke & Stride,” which is supposed to give me a good taste of this whole triathlete thing. Most of you do not realize the extent of the subculture that these triathlete people have created. I try to look like I know what I am doing -- I start by laying out my towel and shoes in the “transition area” because that is what everyone else is doing. I walk around for a little while trying to look like I am getting into the “mental zone,” when really I am just keeping an eye on what everyone else is doing in an attempt to mesh with this subculture. Next comes slipping into the wet suit, which is harder than it sounds, not to mention I am using a borrowed wet suit that I have never tried on before this day. Turns out it was way too big -- try to picture a baggy wet suit. So I'm chillin’ in my too-big wet suit when everyone starts heading to the water. I figure I should follow, right? Well, come to find out they are just doing warm-up laps, but I figure, why not? I guess I could warm-up too. What my warm-up laps taught me is that swimming in a wet suit is pretty different from swimming in a bathing suit, but I can’t back out now so what the heck. I get to the start line and remember a buddy once told me that a good strategy would be to start on the outside where it is not as crowded and angle toward the turnaround point. This would have worked out well had I not started in the front where everyone was faster than me. Try to picture 700 people in this lake, and as they are all trying to pass you, you get kicked a lot. After about 500 yards I was sure I was going to drown. I looked up at the buoy and there was just no way I was going to make it alive...but what were my options? So I pressed on. The swim course is basically 750 meters out and back, so to do the required 1500 meters (that’s just under a mile for the non-metric Americans), you have to do two laps. I figure I did over a mile given that I seemed to have trouble staying on course, but whatever. I was ready to give up altogether after 750, given the “I think I might drown” feeling I was having. But I tell myself that if I look back and I am not the last one, then I will go ahead and finish this thing out. Sure enough I was not the last, which was pretty surprising and frankly a little disappointing. I think the second lap ended up being faster -- go figure -- and I really don’t know why. I guess I just got into a rhythm or something. So I pop out of the water, dreading the idea of having to take the wet suit off. This task did not disappoint -- again, harder then it looks, especially when you are trying to do it in a hurry. Finally I managed to get out of the transition area and I am feeling pretty good at this point -- on to my area of expertise, a 5k run (3.2 miles for you non-metric). The first 500 yards in this go well, when all of a sudden I realize I have a pretty bad side cramp -- got to hate that. So I am just kind of jogging along, pressing on my side, hoping to release the pain. It gets better around mile one, when a middle-aged woman passes me. This is not acceptable at all -- middle-aged women do not need to be beating me. With this in mind I get a bit of an energy burst and finish the run pretty well, passing several middle aged women along the way. It would have been nice to pass a 26-year-old guy in full triathlete gear, but all those guys were drinking Gatorade and hugging their girlfriends at that point. All in all, I finish the thing in 57 minutes. The run took me a disappointing 23:40, which means the swim must have been about 31 minutes (with a couple minutes added in there for the taking off of the wet suit). Hey, that’s a personal record!! Guess I better go get a hug from my imaginary girlfriend and drink some Gatorade -- that seems to be what everyone else is doing.

7/7/05

Three Weeks!

It’s getting late my time, but I felt like a post was overdue and I wanted to throw one up before I call it a night. It also occurred to me just now that this is a good day to commemorate -- I will be back home in Colorado Springs exactly three weeks from today! (that is, assuming I count today as Thursday, which I do. I suppose it’s officially Friday now, but I still maintain that changing the date at midnight is completely stupid. It’s still Thursday night. Granted, it’s late on Thursday night, but it’s still Thursday night). Yep, it’s official now, I've got the itinerary and everything. It looks like it’s my job to get myself on a military flight to Germany, and from there the company takes over and flies me home on their dime. They’ve got me booked to leave Frankfurt on the 27th, and thanks to a time change that works in my favor I’ll get to Columbus, GA that same afternoon. I’ll only be in Columbus for 24 hours, so hopefully the rumors are true that all I have to do there is turn in my two duffel bags of Army gear, because that’s about all I’ll have time to do. I leave Columbus on the afternoon of the 28th and arrive in Colorado Springs later that night -- exactly three weeks from today! My travel weary soul won’t get any rest, though. Apparently my family is planning a vacation to visit some aunts/uncles/cousins/grandparents in Washington state that weekend, and my step-dad can get me a plane ticket for free through his company (“free” for him at least, I guess the company’s still got to pay for it), so I’ll be in the Springs for a mere 24 hours or less before I board yet another plane, this time destined for eastern Washington. I’ll hang out there and visit family for a few days, arriving back in the Springs on the 3rd of August -- just in time for the weekend of shows that I’ve dubbed the “Welcome Home Josh Awesome Ska Party.” I can’t wait for Reel Big Fish and Catch 22, and apparently neither can several of my friends, because the responses to my “I’ll buy your ticket” invitation have started to pour in. Way to go people, I’m stoked to have so many of you along for the ride. It’s all about the Rock! And speaking of the rock, my huge order of CDs has started to arrive, so I’ve been busy ripping CDs onto my iPod for the last couple of days. I’ve got way too many CDs sitting in my room right now to give each one the devoted “first listen” that they all deserve, but I’m doing my best. I can tell you that Suburban Legends are an amazing band, and I definitely should have jumped on that bandwagon a long time ago. The same goes for None More Black -- those guys prove that there are still bands out there who know how to scream out a great punk rock tune. I’m also fairly impressed with the new MxPx album -- I’ve only given it one listen so far, but it lives up to all the punk rock message board hype that I’ve been reading on the internet. It’s definitely better than their last release, which was, to put it lightly, not so good (and this coming from a guy who has the band’s logo tattooed on his shoulder). I don’t think we’ll ever get anything from these guys as awesome as their first three releases, but the latest effort is definitely impressive. Right now I'm listening to the newest Aquabats album, and let me just say that it is AWESOME! Granted, these guys have slowly evolved past their ska roots into a sort of Devo-esque punk band, but this lasest CD is hands down the best one since “The Fury Of The Aquabats” -- possibly their best effort ever. The song “Hot Summer Nights” literally made me laugh out loud, something only The Aquabats are capable of. I can't wait to see these guys live. Oh, and I also can’t wait to bust open The Toasters’ DVD that arrived today. I have no idea when I’ll actually be going to bed tonight, but it doesn’t look like it’ll be any time soon. Otherwise, things are coming together nicely. I have the day off tomorrow, and I plan to devote several hours to another round of packing and shipping. I’m getting close to being all packed up and ready to go, so that’s good. I’ve got tentative plans to get down to Kabul next week, so that trip is still a go. I could tell you all about how terrible things continue to be at work, but I’ll spare you. It would take too much time and be too boring, so I’ll save the details for a face-to-face story some other time. Suffice it to say that I’m getting out of here just in time. Also, for those that may be desiring/expecting it, I don’t necessarily have plans for a big, long, “last hurrah” post that eloquently sums up my year in Afghanistan and leaves you with inspiring morsels of wisdom. I’m sure you’ll know when my last post is (this is definitely not it), but I can’t guarantee how great it will be. I just wanted to get that out of the way now. With that said -- thanks for reading. It’s truly been a pleasure to use this blog as a means of keeping in touch with my family and friends over the many long months that I’ve been out here, and I’ve even managed to pick up a few new friends along the way, which is more than I could have asked for. I appreciate all the time you’ve spent catching up on my life and posting comments about yours. Just think, in three more weeks we’ll be able to share even more over a cup of coffee or a beer. I can’t wait!

7/4/05

Happy Fourth

My holiday didn’t start out as wonderfully as it could have, but it turned into a pretty decent day. I began by oversleeping -- a bad habit that’s becoming harder to fight. Given that I’m leaving in roughly three weeks, it’s hard to motivate myself to be diligent at work. It doesn’t help that I didn’t even turn off the light until 0300 last night, and probably didn’t fall asleep until at least ½ hour later. I slept in later than I wanted to, but I didn’t stress it too much because, like I said, I just don’t really care any more. I strolled into work at a little past 1030, and my coworkers promptly informed me that Lieutenant Colonel So-And-So had shown up looking for me about an hour earlier. Apparently he wasn’t happy that I was absent at our pre-arranged meeting time. Whoops. I had totally spaced the fact that just yesterday I told this particular LTC to meet me at the Help Desk at 0930 so that I could help him solve a printer problem. Again, I didn’t stress it -- I’m too concerned with leaving at this point to give a crap about anyone’s printer problems, Lieutenant Colonels or not. I ended up calling the guy and smoothing things over, so it worked out fine in the end anyway. I managed to hang around the office for all of about fifteen minutes before I headed out on my errand for the day -- obtaining a new ID card. I was braced for a long line and lots of waiting at the ID card office, but to my surprise there were only two guys in front of me when I showed up. I still had to wait for a solid 25 minutes before I was called in, but hey, it could have been a lot worse. I turned in my paperwork, answered the lady’s questions regarding my personal information, and then sat down for the photo. She snapped the picture, and about two minutes later she handed me the card and told me to look it over and verify the accuracy of the information on it (name spelled right, correct DOB, etc). It took me a minute to finish the task she gave me, because the first and most obvious thing that I noticed about the ID was the photo. I almost laughed out loud. “Is that seriously what I look like?” I thought to myself. I'm the kind of guy who will tell you that I don’t worry too much about appearances and how I look, and to some degree that’s true. It’s definitely become truer since I’ve landed out here. I’ve sort of “let myself go” over the past year, and especially the past month or so, and I think that seeing the ID photo was the first time in several weeks that I’d actually taken a good hard look at myself. And it cracked me up. It was entertaining enough that I’ve decided to share it with you. Pictured below are two photos of me sitting side by side -- the photo on the left is from my (now expired) Colorado drivers license, which was taken on 22 June 2004, roughly a month before I left for Afghanistan. The photo on the right is from my Army ID, taken this morning. Enjoy: Man, that still makes me laugh. Crazy what a year will do to you. I sat the two IDs side by side for one of my coworkers to look at, and she told me it looks like I’ve spent the year in jail, not in Afghanistan. Sometimes I’m not sure there’s much difference. Anyway, I got a huge kick out of that photo, so I thought I’d share. It was getting close to lunchtime when I left the ID card office, and I wasn’t in the mood to go straight back to work, so I didn’t. I headed over to the DSST Compound, which is where I live. Our little group of contractors, along with the military folks that are in charge of us, had decided to throw a Fourth of July party. I went and hung out for a bit, which was a good time. The grills were already fired up and in full swing, so I took advantage. I enjoyed some ribs, BBQ chicken, hot dogs, and even one of these: Someone had the crazy idea of setting up a Karaoke machine at the party, and I stayed long enough to watch one of the System Administrators do a hilarious rendition of Billie Jean before I headed back to work. The last highlight of the holiday was at mail call. I showed up in case some of my CDs had arrived, but honestly I didn’t expect anything to be here this quickly. Sure enough two of the six shipments showed up today, which was awesome. I ducked out of work early to rip the new music to my iPod, and right now I’m rocking out to an album called Rump Shaker by the Suburban Legends, who as of this evening are my new favorite band. These guys rule.

7/3/05

I Can't Think Of A Title

Okay, I’m back to normal now, or at least as close to normal as one gets when they’re three weeks away from what I’d call a “major life change.” I’ve made it over the initial euphoria that led to the overuse of exclamation points in my last post. I’m still excited though, in a weird “constantly energized” sort of way. It’s actually a good thing -- this feeling in my gut of excited nervousness or nervous excitement or whatever you’d call it -- because it can be very invigorating and motivating. It has also served to keep me up late at night, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, but I’m trying not to sweat it. I generally try and go to bed at roughly midnight or 0100, but I haven’t managed to fall asleep until after 0300 for these past few nights. Maybe that will fade, maybe not -- at this point I don’t really care. I have gotten a lot done in the last 72 hours though, so I’m happy about that. So far: I’ve given my company the official letter of resignation, and I’ve also filled out four separate forms that are needed for HR to properly process my departure. I’ve packed an entire trunk full of stuff to ship home, only to find out that it was well over the weight limit for the US Postal Service to ship (70 lbs). I unpacked it, repacked half the contents into smaller and lighter boxes, and shipped all of them today. I sold my TV to one of the new guys, and another new guy has already got dibs on my coffee maker (he can’t have it until the day I head out though -- there’s no way I’ll survive these next three weeks without a readily available supply of caffeine). I’ve made headway on the last big “project” that’s hanging over my head at work -- the project is due Tuesday so hopefully I’ll finish that up tomorrow and get that weight off my chest. Then it’s back to packing -- the trunk still needs to be filled with clothes and other lightweight items and then shipped. I’ve still got to ensure that I can pare my room down to the bare essentials, just the stuff that will fit into my two-duffel-bags-and-one-backpack plan. I’ve still got to get some paperwork in order, including obtaining a new ID card (now that I’m leaving earlier than planned I don’t really need the ID card, but I still want it). I’ve got to get clarification on the procedure for traveling home. At first it looked like I was supposed to fly military to Germany, where the company would take over and get me home on commercial planes. Now it’s looking like I’ve got to fly all the way back to D.C. on military jets, and the company will take over from there. Either way, I was at least able to confirm that since I’m staying until my official “end of contract” date, I am still entitled to all of my end-of-contract bonuses, so that’s good news. Turns out the company will also continue to pay me during my travel time home, which is an extra plus. I’m hoping to God that my boxes of CDs show up before I leave here. I’ve already confirmed that all of them have shipped, but you never know how long it’ll take for stuff to get here. If they get here soon, they’ll be ripped to the iPod before they get sent on home. If they don’t get here until right before I leave, they may have to be forwarded home unopened. If they don’t get here at all before I leave...well, I’d prefer not to think about that scenario. Oh, and in addition to all the planning/packing/CD-ripping that still needs to get done, I’m also committed to making my trip down to Kabul a reality. I’ll make that phone call tomorrow. Moving on...The Concerts. I’ve got two friends confirmed for the Reel Big Fish show, so props to them. Those tickets will be purchased later tonight. I’ve got another friend confirmed for at least one unnamed show -- details to follow after she figures some things out at work. I’ve got a brother who’s committed to all three shows, assuming he can get the weekend off from work. Good news so far, but definitely keep the confirmations rolling in if you can make it to the shows. I’m telling you people, it’s going to rule. Here’s a little story that ought to get you motivated: a cousin of mine posted a comment to this blog expressing her interest in coming to the shows, despite the fact that she lives in Kansas City, and the fact that her parents are against it. She’s fighting the good fight to make it happen, and not letting anything stand in her way. Not even the fact that she’s only six weeks old (You tell ‘em Caroline! Your parents are lame. Cry until they cave -- at your age it’s totally okay to play the “immaturity card”). So what’s your excuse people? If my six-week-old cousin has the drive to make it happen, so should you. It’s fun and it’s free, so I want to hear some more “yes” votes soon. That’s all I got for now -- time for me to go hit the showers and then maybe get this trunk packed up before I call it a night. Three more weeks, people...I’m home free in three more weeks. Rock!

6/30/05

Rocking Out Take Two - For Real This Time!!

Kids, I have the most wonderful news ever. Do you remember, a mere fortnight ago, when I told you that I would be leaving here on 7 August at the earliest? Well I lied! Isn’t that great!?! I’m so excited that I don’t know where to begin! I discovered today, thanks to the wonderful people over at punknews.org, that Catch 22 has been added to the already-in-progress Coast To Coast Roast tour starring Reel Big Fish. Do you know awesome that is!? It’s better-than-winning-a-new-car awesome. I read Aaron Barrett’s online journal (he’s the Reel Big Fish frontman, but I’ll just pretend that you already knew that) and the way he describes the new drummer and John The Trumpet God and the band playing really tight and sounding great and feeling so “tonight’s the night”...I have to see this show! And now Catch 22 is on the tour!! Words don’t do justice to the awesomeness so I have to resort to overusing exclamation points!!! Here’s the kicker people...the Coast To Coast Roast Tour, the very one that I just mentioned and that now includes Reel Big Fish and Catch 22, will be landing in Denver on 5 August!! I can’t contain it any longer, so here’s the most wonderful news I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing on this blog: I WILL BE AT THAT SHOW!! You heard me right folks, I will be back in Denver by 5 August, and I will spend that night rocking out in the purest sense, in front of two of the most amazing bands to ever grace my ears with their sonic power! And it gets better! You’re all invited!! And you’re going to come to the show with me!! That’s right folks, I want you to come to this show. I’m going to quit with the exclamation points for a second, because I’ve already used way too many, plus I want to convey the fact that I am totally serious about this. If you know me well at all, or if you’ve just been reading this blog for long enough, you already know that I live and die by good shows. Hell, I rearranged my recent Europe vacation, pushing it back by an entire month, for the sole reason of catching a few good shows. I will be leaving Afghanistan on 25 July and I will be joining all of you at the Coast To Coast Roast show in Denver on 5 August. Here’s how deadly serious I am about this -- I will buy a ticket to the show for anyone and everyone who wants to go. If you’re reading this, I will buy your ticket! All of you! I know there are some of you reading this (and here I’m thinking of people like the Schierholz sisters or Adam K in C/S or Adrian down in Canon City or Amelia in Boulder -- there are others) who are thinking “Oh, he doesn’t mean me, he’s only talking about his tight group of friends.” NO! I mean everyone!! I will buy your ticket, and all you have to do is tell me that you want to go!! Here’s the thing people -- in the back of my mind I was tentatively planning to throw a big party when I got back, a “welcome home” gig for anyone and everyone (regardless of how well I know you, or whether I even know you at all) to show up to, socialize, drink some beer, and celebrate the fact that I’m back home. Well, this is it! This is the big party!! We’ll be hanging out, drinking some beers (or non-alcoholic beverages of your choice -- I’m not passing judgment here), socializing, and rocking out to some great ska at the same time!! You’re all invited, and it’s all on me!! If that’s not enough to get you totally, completely, and unbelievably excited, there’s more! Three and four days later, on 8 and 9 August, I’m inviting you all to rounds two and three of the “Welcome Home Josh Awesome Ska Party!” It turns out that not only will I be home in time for the Coast To Coast Roast Tour, but also the Son Of The Teenage Pajamas From Outer Space Tour!! To my utter amazement and unquantifiable excitement, those wacky ska superheroes known as The Aquabats have resurrected themselves from oblivion and joined forces with sexy punk rockers The Eyeliners, and both bands, along with The Phenomenauts and Time Again, will be in Colorado on the 8th and 9th of August!! The cities are Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, and I guarantee I will be at both shows. And you’re all invited to come back again, to one or both of the shows, for another night(s) of ska/punk awesomeness on my bill!! I’ll buy your ticket to those shows, too!! By now I’m sure you all think I’ve gone insane, but let me assure you that I have not. Let me also assure you that the Son Of The Teenage Pajamas From Outer Space Tour will be the single best thing that ever happened to you in your entire life -- ever. That warm August night will provide you with countless hours of inspiring stories of friendship (and pure rock goodness) that you’ll be telling to your grandchildren in the year 2046. Seriously people, I was genuinely afraid that I’d missed the chance to ever see The Aquabats live on stage again, and the news of their upcoming tour, coupled with the addition of Catch 22 to the Coast To Coast Roast tour, has almost single-handedly made this entire year worthwhile. Please, if you do anything at all this summer, join me for one (or better yet all!) of these shows. I promise you won’t regret it. So here’s the lowdown: three amazing shows, and I’ll be at every one. You can be there too (free of charge!) if you simply tell me that you want to go. I won’t discriminate based on who you are or where you live...if you’re willing to be in Denver/Colorado Springs/Fort Collins on the aforementioned dates, your ticket is on me. So what are you waiting for!? You know you want to go to these shows, or at the very least you want to hang out with me upon my impending (and sooner than planned!) return. And just in case that’s not enough, the first one to respond, by either emailing me or posting a comment on this blog, will also get a CD of your choice by Reel Big Fish/Catch 22/The Aquabats/The Eyeliners or any of the other amazing bands at these shows, purchased by me. So what are you waiting for!? Ready...Go!

6/29/05

Four Days Feels Like Forever

Wow. Has it really been four days since my last post? I guess that's not terrible, although I would really like to be posting more often than that. Here's the best excuse I can muster... I used to spend my time at work not actually working. It was a pretty sweet deal, really. Despite my complaints about life out here, it wasn't so bad there for a while. I'd come into work, but I'd spend the majority of the day writing blog posts, sending and returning emails, and surfing the web. Lately though, work has been too busy for me to indulge myself with "personal stuff." I actually have to get some work done now. As a result, six days out of the week look a lot like this: wake up, start the coffee, throw some clothes on, get ready for work. Go to work and spend 10-12 hours doing repetitive, annoying, and sometimes stressful work. Leave work, go back to the hut, make up for lost time by surfing all the news/webcomics/blogs/techie-sites that I didn't have time to surf at work. Look at the clock, realize it's bedtime. Go to bed, get up the next day and do it all again. It's a very boring life, and it doesn't leave a whole lot of time for writing blog posts. I think the problem is that when I get home from work, I tend to use the internet in much the same way as I used the TV back home. I'd instinctively turn it on, and then proceed to "zone out" for a while. Usually "a while" would turn into hours, and before I knew it the evening was wasted. I can justify using the internet in this way to some extent, in that it's more interesting and educational than almost anything I ever used to watch on TV, but still...it's not really a great way to spend my time. I'd rather be interacting and engaging with people, which is probably why I'm so anxious to get back home. It'd be nice to at least have someone to say hi to and make small talk with when I get "home." In the meantime, however, this blog is my best way to "engage" others, so I guess I need to be more diligent with it while I'm still here. I'll work on that, I promise. So now that we're "engaging," what is there to say? Not a whole lot, really. I just described to you above, in a whopping three or four incomplete sentences, the extent of 90% of my life. Boring, ain't it? At least it won't be too much longer until I can get home and (hopefully) add a little bit more excitement to my existence. I'm anxiously tracking the status of the CDs I ordered, which I guess is kind of fun. I placed various orders at various websites, and it breaks down into six different shipments, three of which have already been dropped in the mail. It's kind of a guessing game with the mail out here -- I've received some packages as quickly as six days while others have taken three weeks. There's really no rhyme or reason to it, and since we can only receive US Postal Service mail out here, it isn't track-able like UPS or FedEx. It makes going to the daily mail call fun because you never know if your stuff's going to be there. I guess it's a good sign that I can still find joy in the little things like waiting for the mail -- at least I know I haven't become hopelessly jaded by the monotony. I'm also looking forward to an upcoming trip to Kabul, although I suppose I should probably get off my butt and plan the trip before I get too excited about it. The "planning" really only consists of making a phone call or two to find out when I can get on a convoy down there, but I still haven't managed to do that yet. I have gotten permission from my boss to head down there, so that's a start. He told me I could take a "day or two" to go down there, but what he doesn't know won't hurt him. If I get down there and then feed him a line about how I can't get back because they don't have any convoys to Bagram scheduled, what's he going to do? I'm thinking I'll be down there for at least three days, maybe more. He'll get over it. Speaking of bosses, I also sat down with the Country Manager recently (he's like the Supreme Boss of Everything) and we talked about my status. I came clean and told him I was planning to leave in August, and he was surprisingly cool with it. He even hooked me up with a new set of orders which state I'll be staying until May 2006, which is sweet because now I can renew my Army ID card. I'll be home in August, but I'll have an "Army Contractor" ID card that lasts until next May. Guaranteed I'll be flashing that sucker anywhere and everywhere a military discount is offered -- might as well milk this thing for all it's worth. I could probably even use the orders to get a free military flight to Europe and back, although that might be pushing it. Anyway, the one thing that Supreme Boss told me was that he wants me to start "coaching" a replacement for the Team Lead position, and I've already got someone picked out for that. I talked to her today and she's on board with it, so hopefully soon I can start slowly but surely pawning my work duties off onto her until I slip out of the picture entirely. Ideally she'll have taken over the Team Lead role entirely by the end of July, enabling me to sit back and idly collect one last paycheck before I get on a plane. That'd be pretty cool. Well, I guess that's about all I got for now, and the clock is telling me that it's definitely pushing bedtime. If I haven't returned your email it's only because I've been busy daydreaming about actually seeing you face-to-face soon. I'll write back soon, and in the meantime I'll be counting the days and probably still procrastinating on the packing. Some things never change.

6/25/05

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Today, Saturday, which is winding down for me but is just getting started for all of you back home, marks exactly 11 months that I’ve been on this contract. I’m a mere one month away from my ‘end of contract’ date, and roughly six weeks away from actually leaving this place. What an unbelievable feeling. I’ve been looking forward to the end pretty much since I got here, and I’m completely stoked that I’m now so close. I’ve been on a high all day. I cannot wait until I get home. Excitement aside, here’s the latest news, and the reason for this post’s title. I finally started to make some progress on “The Project,” although it’s really not much. I had the day off yesterday, and I used the free time to meander on over to the PX where I bought myself a rather large crate. It’s basically a big plastic box -- the Army calls it a “foot locker,” but I just call it a trunk (thanks to the wonders of American marketing I still associate the words “foot locker” with athletic shoes and referee shirts). I’m optimistically hoping that everything I need to ship home will fit into this one trunk, but that may be a bit of wishful thinking. I have yet to actually put anything into the trunk, but I figure the purchase of it is one small step in the right direction. The only downside is that I currently have no space in my tiny little room for anything, let alone a huge trunk. As a result, the trunk has been making its way from the bed, to the floor, then back again -- incidentally, that’s how I often kept my room clean back home. Too much crap on the floor? Throw it all on the bed! At night I just dumped it all back on the floor to make room for myself to sleep, and then in the morning it all went back on the bed. That’s what the trunk’s been doing so far. One of these days I’ll get around to doing some actual organizing in here and maybe (gasp!) even start packing the trunk. So if buying the trunk is “one step forward,” what are the “two steps back?” I’m reluctant to tell you. More specifically I’m reluctant to tell my brother, because when he reads this he’s likely to disown me. I spent the better part of the day yesterday shopping for CDs. It’s been a long time since I’ve purchased any CDs, which is uncommon for me, so I spent most of my free time yesterday making up for it. Without going off on too much of a tangent (really, I’ll try my best not to), let’s just say I’m a huge fan of CDs. My CD collection, as a whole, is hands down the single most valuable item that I own -- both in terms of sentimental value, as well as sheer monetary cost (granted, I don’t currently own a car, but there was a time when the total cost of all the CDs I own was more than the cost of my car. Sad but true). Let me just say, for the record (and to clarify for all the folks that don’t understand how one man can spend that much money on CDs) that I’ve always been a fan of purchasing music. I remember when Napster (the original one) was all the rage back in college, but I never used it for much outside of obtaining hard to find tracks that were never sold in a traditional format (like the theme song to Duck Tales, for instance). Kazaa, BitTorrent, and all the other peer to peer file swapping services don’t appeal to me in the slightest. I’m a big fan of supporting the bands whose music I enjoy, and in the interest of not going off on an unrelated music piracy rant, I’ll just leave it at that. I will say this also -- I haven’t quite warmed up to the legitimate ways of buying digital music either. I’ve had the Apple iTunes software running on my computer since December, but it wasn’t until recently that I could finally access the iTunes Music Store. The Army, in their ongoing quest to maintain network security (or their overzealous authoritarianism, depending on your perspective), has decided to block access to that online store. Roughly a week ago I finally figured out how to circumvent their network security, which means not only can I now access the iTunes Music Store, but I can also use my chat software and access a myriad of web sites that were previously blocked. The best part is that I can do all of this without getting caught (I swear, working with the Army has turned me into a little wanna-be hacker). The point is that I’ve recently spent time browsing the iTunes store, and while I will say that it’s pretty darn cool, it’s still not something that I prefer over CDs (not yet anyway). It’s pretty neat to be able to find the bands that I’m in to and download an entire album for $10 and a mouse click, but somehow the idea of owning actual CDs still appeals to me. It could be that $10 isn’t much less (and is sometimes more) than what I’d pay for the CD itself anyway, or it could be that my internet connection is so slow out here that downloading a 60 MB album could easily take me 6 hours, or it could be that CDs don’t have the “DRM” restrictions that most legitimately purchased digital files do...but I think it’s more than that. There’s something about paying for a CD and then holding it in my hands -- about reading through the liner notes while I’m giving the disc its first listen -- that just makes the whole music buying experience worth it to me. So yesterday I embarked on what promises to be my final round of CD shopping from Afghanistan, and I found a lot of good stuff that I “need” to buy. The big question though, and this is where the whole story ties together, was whether I should have the CDs shipped to me out here (giving me limited time to receive them, rip them, and then ship them home myself) or just have them shipped directly home. If you know me at all, then you already know how I answered that question -- I had them all shipped to me out here. I realize that probably doesn’t sound like the brightest idea I’ve ever had, and I’ll admit that I had a bit of a hard time justifying it to myself. In the end I decided that some of the music is just too good, and that it can’t wait until I get home. I must have it, and I must have it now. How am I supposed to survive the impending hours-upon-hours of flights and layovers knowing that so much good music is sitting idly in a box at home, when I could be listening to it right now? The answer is I’m not, and that’s why the CDs are on their way. So here I sit, with a giant empty plastic trunk and a roomful of stuff to cram into it. But I couldn’t leave well enough alone; no, I went and bought a few boxes worth of extra stuff to cram into it. If this is good news for anybody, it’s good news for the US Postal Service. With all the music I’m having shipped out here, only to turn around and ship it all right back home (after it’s ripped to the iPod, of course), I just may single-handedly keep the USPS alive for the next few weeks. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.

6/21/05

It's A Small World After All

I was sitting at work today, procrastinating all the things I should have been working on and counting the days until I leave here, when a customer walked in. The first thing he asked was “Is there a Josh that works here?” That question always indicates one of two things: 1) I spoke with someone on the phone, and I directed them to ask for me specifically when they came into the office. I didn’t recall having done that in the last few days. That left indication 2) The customer is upset, they know I’m the Lead, so they’re here asking for me by name in order to complain. Great, I thought, just great. I don’t need this today. I took a deep breath and answered “Yeah, I’m Josh. What can I do for you?” He smiled, pointed to the name-tape on his uniform, and said “My cousin told me that you wouldn’t believe there was a Schierholz out here, so I’m stopping by to prove it.” (the guy’s last name is Schierholz, in case anyone needed clarification). I smiled back as I recalled an IM conversation I had with a buddy of mine the other day... My good friend Ryan and I chat on IM fairly regularly -- usually it’s as I’m getting ready to call it a night and he’s just showing up at work. A few days ago we were chatting and he mentioned that he’d been meaning to tell me something for a long time but kept spacing it. He said that he has a cousin who’s out here, right here on this base, and that this cousin shares his unique last name. Apparently one of Ryan’s sisters had told this cousin to stop by and say hi because they knew I’d get a kick out of it. Ryan also mentioned during out little chat that this cousin is scheduled to redeploy soon (“redeploy” is Army-speak for “go back home”), so I figured that I’d probably missed my chance to meet this cousin. I didn’t think much of it, and sure enough by today I had forgotten all about. Thanks to the efforts of “Ryan and Sisters,” who hadn’t forgotten about it, I was pleasantly surprised when Lieutenant Schierholz walked into my office today. My conversation with the LT was short, but it was really fun to meet him and chat for a bit. We stayed on the typical “I-don’t-really-know-you-but-I-know-people-that-you-know” small talk, and I was able to reminisce just a little bit. I told him that Ryan and I have been friends for years, that we went to school together and were college (and post-college) roommates -- he mentioned Elizabeth’s name and I told him that I knew Ryan’s sisters and mom fairly well and that I’d actually lived in Elizabeth’s house back in Colorado Springs for a while. It was the second “small world” meeting that I’ve had since arriving here, the first of which was several months ago when I met a Sergeant from Omaha who knows my aunt and uncle. It’s always fun to run into people like that because it really does help to shrink this great big planet just a bit. It’s comforting to know that despite the thousands of miles that separate me from my family and friends, our worlds can still be brought together through mutual relationships. Mostly the conversation just made me wish I was in LT Schierholz’s shoes, and that I was mere days away from heading home to actually see those family and friends. I won’t be too far behind him though, and in the meantime it’s fun to meet someone who is connected to the very people that I’m anxious to get home and hang out with.

6/18/05

The Project

So that last post made things sound a little bit more depressing than it needed to. Life’s really not that bad here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still no fun at all, it’s just not as bad as it once was. There was a time -- probably late January and into February -- when I really couldn’t stand it out here. There were many days and nights back then that I gave some serious thought to packing it up and calling it quits. I’m not at that low point anymore, largely because I know I will be packing it up and heading home very soon. Every time work starts to stress me out, or I start to get annoyed by something-or-other, I just look at a calendar and try to smile. It won’t be long now. I’m still counting the days until the end of my contract (37 to go), although I’ll probably be out here a few weeks beyond that. I finally got some of my questions answered, and I now know for sure that I’m free to leave any time after 25 July. I haven’t set a hard date yet, but I have narrowed it down: I’ll be out of here on 7 August at the earliest, and no later than 21 August. Sometime between now and then I’ll narrow that down to a more specific date. The more pressing issue, however, is what I’ve not-so-creatively dubbed “The Project.” “The Project” is the name that I’ve assigned to the task of getting ready to get on a plane and head home. It consists largely of packing and shipping -- something I’m not particularly looking forward to. You wouldn’t think that a guy who’s entire life is housed in a 9’ x 10’ room would be able to accumulate very much stuff, but you’d be wrong. I’ve got a trunk full of books, CDs, DVDs, and paperwork that all needs to be shipped home before I leave here -- not to mention the clothes and souvenirs that I’d rather not lug home with me on a plane. I’ve also got a few things that I’m sure I’ll be leaving behind -- the coffee maker and the TV definitely won’t be going back with me. Those, along with a few other random items, will be either sold to a newcomer or else donated to whoever inherits my room. After I get everything sorted out and a large portion of it mailed home, the next task will be the packing. The idea behind the packing is to make the journey home as painless as possible. In contrast, here’s how my journey went on the way out here: I left Colorado with a backpack, a computer bag, and a huge duffel bag (think hockey bag and you’ll have the idea) that were all packed completely full. The duffel bag alone weighed close to 70 lbs (I know this because I just barely missed having to pay an “overweight baggage charge” to the airline). As if that wasn’t enough to travel with, I stopped at Fort Benning, GA on my way out here, where the Army outfitted me with three more cargo bags. I managed to cram all the Army gear into two bags, but it still wasn’t exactly fun carrying two Army cargo bags (each of which also weighed in at just under 70 lbs), my huge duffel bag, a backpack, and a computer bag in and out of airports all the way from Georgia to Afghanistan. I’m hoping to avoid a repeat on the way home. With any luck I’ll manage to re-pack all the Army gear in such a way that it fits into just two cargo bags again, and almost everything else will be shipped home. The remaining personal items, just enough for the trip home, will fit into my recently acquired travel pack. That’s the goal anyway; two cargo bags and one backpack. The rest of this room will be mailed home or else it’s staying here. The only part of “The Project” that I’ve managed to complete so far is the planning, which I’ve basically outlined above. I still haven’t found the motivation to get started on the actual Project itself yet. It’ll happen soon enough. I’ve given myself a target date of 1 August to complete “The Project” -- by that date I don’t plan to own anything that doesn’t fit inside the two Army bags and my backpack. As I glance around at all the junk in my room it looks almost impossible. Wish me luck.

6/15/05

I'm Officially On The Home Stretch Now

It was only a matter of time. Try as I might to fight it, I’ve been here long enough to know that this place will inevitably suck the life right out of you. Life slowly spirals downward into a monotonous routine of little else besides work-sleep-work-sleep-work-sleep. I knew it would happen. It’s been just under one month since I returned from vacation, and it appears to have finally hit bottom. Two weeks ago I had no problem coming up with fun, entertaining, interesting stories for this here blog. Now I can’t think of even one story that’s worth your time. I go to work, then I go to sleep, then I wake up and do it all again. Today I picked up some clean laundry and put it away. That was the highlight of my day. I’m not joking, it really was the highlight. I put my headphones in, hit “play” on the old iPod, and started putting away laundry. Ten minutes later it was over. I look forward to doing that again in five days. Even something like doing laundry in this place operates on a very strict schedule, which is why I’m able to tell you exactly how many days it will be until I put laundry away again. Yep, it’s quite a fabulous life that I live. Work, sleep, work, sleep, work. My Help Desk is shorthanded again for the first time since I arrived back from vacation, which essentially means that my free-wheelin’ days of playing the boss role are over. No more sitting at the big desk in the back, pretending to be busy when I’m actually just surfing the web. Now I’m up front again, answering the phone and talking with the customers, returning their stupid emails and fielding their stupid questions. I knew this was coming -- you see, the Help Desk staffer that is now gone was scheduled to leave on vacation next week anyway. I knew that my return to the “front lines” was inevitable; I just figured that I still had another eight days or so to get ready for it. Then I woke up this morning, and I learned otherwise. Allow me to give you a little bit of background, because I have nothing else remotely interesting to say. My staffer, we’ll call him D, was scheduled to leave on vacation next Thursday. This meant that I would have to make my return to the “front lines” next week in order to cover the vacancy (it’s somewhat unfair to use that term given the fact that there are soldiers out here who actually do work on the “front lines,” whereas I just sit in an office and provide tech support. My apologies to the real fighters). I found out when I woke up this morning, around 1100, that D had received the dreaded call from the Red Cross late last night. The Red Cross only calls for one reason, and that’s to tell you that you’ve been granted Emergency Leave. You only get Emergency Leave when something very distressing has happened, so it’s never good news when the Red Cross calls. D learned last night that his uncle had passed away, and thus he was being sent home on Emergency Leave. He was on a plane early this morning. The one good thing about Emergency Leave is that no one can stand in its way. Once the Red Cross has verified a legitimate reason for Emergency Leave, you can guarantee that you’ll be on the next flight home. No one can stop the Red Cross once they’ve gotten involved, and to my knowledge no one’s ever tried (I should hope not anyway). If the Red Cross says you’re going home, then by God you’re going home. One week is the standard duration for Emergency Leave, but we all know D will be gone for much longer. His one week would put him back on this base next Wednesday, and he was leaving on vacation next Thursday. The big boss (my boss) has already told him to just stay home until his vacation is over, which is not until mid-July. We won’t see D again for a while, if we see him again at all. D was a hard one to read -- every time he left on vacation he swore he wouldn’t be coming back, although he always did. This time, he just might not. I guess we’ll find out next month. The point is that he’s gone now, so I’m back to the “front lines” to fill in. I’m not very excited about it. To top it off, I know it’s only going to get worse. It’s not just that D’s gone; it’s also that work has really started to get to me again lately. Right after I returned from my break, things were okay -- work was busy, but we were keeping up. I was thoroughly enjoying playing the “boss role” by sitting in the back office and “supervising,” which is boss code for doing absolutely nothing at all. I came into work whenever I wanted, left when I wanted, and didn’t necessarily have to do very much actual work if I didn’t really want to. It was fun for a couple of weeks (although in retrospect I spent way too much time on the internet), but it was bound to end. I’ve been mentally done with this job for a while now, but it seems that my boss is still very much into it. He still wants to see results, to see that things are getting done and that they’re getting done right. So much for my little vacation -- it’s back to the real world now. This past week has been nothing but “action plans” and “training goals” and meetings and charts and graphs full of numbers and matrixes that I could frankly care less about. The big boss cares though, and I care about not getting fired just yet. So yeah, welcome back to the real world. I suppose the good in all this is that it’s likely to strengthen my confidence that the decision to come home at the end of this summer was the right one. I’ve been having my share of second thoughts about that lately, although I’m not really sure why. It probably stems from the fact that I don’t really have any kind of a plan for when I get home. I’ve got a million ideas in my head but no real “plan,” and I’ll be honest, I’m a little concerned about that. My future after Afghanistan is so wide open that it’s sometimes scary; scary enough, it turns out, that I’ve found myself wondering if coming home is really the right thing to do. I may not love life out here, but for a little while there it wasn’t terrible, and at least it was...well, something. I think that being shorthanded for a while, and forcing myself to deal with the “front lines” of tech support again, will help me remember just exactly why I wanted to come home in the first place. I’ll be straight with you, this return to the “real world,” to doing actual work, is going to suck. I’m not looking forward to it at all. There will be no more late nights, no more sleeping in, and no more strolling into work at 1100 or noon or whenever I can drag my lazy butt out of bed. There will be no more sitting in the back and surfing the web, trying to pretend I’m doing something productive. Starting tomorrow, I’m officially back to the daily grind that made me grow to hate this place so many months ago. Back to the busyness, the stress, and the idiot customers with their idiot questions. I know what some of you are thinking, so to be fair I’m not trying to plead for your sympathy. God forbid I should actually have to do some real work for the insane salary that I get paid. All I’m saying is, as much as I’m not looking forward to the next couple of months of work, in a way it will be just what I need. It’s not going to be a whole lot of fun, but I know that when I board that plane roughly 60 days from now (maybe less -- we’ll see how things go), I’ll be so excited to get the heck out of this place that I won’t know what to do with myself. And that, my friends, is something to look forward to.