Friday, 25 December 2015

Packing Up and Saying Goodbye

I’ve started packing up and shipping stuff to Illinois. (My parents have about a million packages waiting for me. It’s like Kickstarter puked in my house.) I have one more box to ship home and I’m done—the rest of my stuff I’ll give away or take away to Melbourne, Australia. (I have zero jeans. My heart cries out for jeans.)
It’s all looking empty—my room, my sparse surroundings.
I plan on carrying: couple of t-shirts, a jacket, a hoodie, chonies and socks and three pair of pants. I lug my gadgets, a notebook, and maybe, just maybe a paperback book.
I bought a lot of gear (too much) and now just leaving as much as I can behind.
So much I’m leaving behind.
My fear of man and a lot of my baggage. My fears and doubts about what I’m capable of.
I do wish my anger and short temper could be packed up, but I’m afraid I have that. My pride is still worn proudly around my neck, like a portable noose.
But I’ll make it—I’ll get there. There’s a seat with my name on it and an adventure on that side too.

YEP, GOT YELLED AT.

I’m at a cushy base right now. CUSHY. It’s quiet, small, good food, awesome housing and nice people.
Except for this one guy.
The Master Sergeant isn’t fond of the Ry-guy (or as my coworkers call me Rhino.) You see, I got sent to this base to train on a system, a system I learned about 5 months ago and haven’t touched since. I get out here and the truck doesn’t work. In fact, it blew a head gasket. That’s really, really bad. That’s like saying, “Sir you have a tumor on every organ in your body and those tumors have faces.”
I was told the truck was good to go. That it would work no problem. 
And there’s the problem—I can’t train soldiers on a truck that doesn’t run. And they brought me here on a convoy through Kabul (more on this tomorrow. I was going to lead with this, but everyone really liked that I got yelled at on Facebook!)
So he bawled me out for about 20 minutes. He was pissed I was there and we had to cancel training. He was livid that truck didn’t work. He just went on and on. I took it and said, “Look, I thought the truck was working. All I did was turn the key and I knew there was a problem. I’m sorry we couldn’t get it fixed and I’m sorry we had some bad information. What can I do to help this situation?”
“Get us a new truck and get to your next base.”
Roger that.
And as I walked away, shlumping back to my room, I thought about this: I didn’t die. 
This guy railed into me, but I didn’t die. Old-Ryan would have been either super crushed (attacked my skills, my mad-mad skills) or been livid and outraged. I went back to my room, called my boss and took a long hot shower (which is rare in these hills my friends.)
My resilience is beefing up. I’m a bit tougher. I can take more licks than I did before. Now, am I happy that MSG Poopy-pants yelled at me (and he wasn’t totally wrong, trust me), no I’m not. But it was a nice test on how thick my skin has gotten.
I’ll be taking a lot more hot showers before I leave. Like 4 a day.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Your Greatest Fear, and Mine and Yours too.

When I think of this grand reboot, how I am on the last leg (I’m a short-timer since I’m less than 60 days out), I think I’ve made some fine progress on this heart. It’s been like a horrible episode of Hoarders where instead of my brother Matt Paxton carrying out piles of dead (and sometimes flat) cats, it’s Jesus carrying out all this hurt and regret, this pain and loneliness. I wish I could have gone to Kansas City, KS with better internet and barbecue than here and worked on it there, fingers stained with BBQ sauce, the trash filled with brisket containers.
But I came to Afghanistan.
One of the things that hasn’t changed is my singleness. Nope, didn’t get married—and recently, a buddy of mine asked me:
“What’s the hardest, the most soul ripping part about being single?”
It is not being loved—enough.
See, here in Afghanistan, we are all single. We aren’t with our spouses. We are just muddling, trying to get to the next meal, the next sunset, the next bugle call.
So I kind of belong here. I kind fit in more in a way in Afghanistan than I do back in the States.
But I digress.
Not being loved enough.
I’m going to be touring the US when I’m back (and it’s a bit risky, not having a job, living off my reserve) I’m seeing old and new friends. Friends I’ve never technically met in a physical sort of way. I’m bouncing around until August and then I have to look for a real job. But at the end of it, I’m not sure how I’m going to feel. I’m going to be Ryan the single guy again. Afghanistan will be long behind me and I won’t be that guy in Afghanistan.
I fear living this life continuing to be lonely and single.
But if I look back at these almost 40 years, I see a God who is faithful and I get to be single. I get to have a lot of great relationships. I can hop on a plane whenever I want. I can change directions.
A contractor asked why I’m not staying longer and I said, “I only have to feed THIS mouth.” He laughed.
So careful reader, I know this sounds strange. My deepest fear is that I am not loved enough or even understood, but I think that’s everyone’s problem. I think we turn to things and material possessions, obsessions and twelve too many beers to fill that void (I’m filling mine with Kickstarters. Damn it.)
And yes, I know Jesus loves me. This I know. But the tangibility of that I find is only in people as strange as that sounds.
And it is not good for man to be alone. And when he is, he buys a lot of tickets on Southwest. No joke.

THE BEST KIND OF FREEDOM

There is no other movie that touched and fundamentally changed me as a person than The Shawshank Redemption. Yes, you’ve seen it on TBS a zillion times. Yes, we all know it by heart (if you haven’t seen it, well, what is between us is on hold for a second). The movie is about two things: freedom and friendship.
Andy is trying to find freedom within the bars of the prison, his projects while he slowly, ever so slowly frees himself (SPOILER!)
Red is in the balance. He can’t play the harmonica, but he can help. He can be Andy’s tax helper, his book shelver.
And through their search, they become friends, the best of friends.
I remember watching that movie on the big screen and it just gripped me. The pursuit of friendship and freedom and how they are entwined, how without freedom we can’t have friends and without friendship, we are not free.
I could go on and on.
I just told my supervisor that I’m peacing out on April 17th. I’m done next month. That’s right, nerds. Next month. I’m out of here. No more flying space available. No more MREs. No more DFACs and talking in acronyms.
And when I told him, something unlocked in me and I was Andy who crawled through that sewer pipe. I’m not there yet. I can see the end of the pipe. I know I can get there. Just a little farther.
And when I land in Melbourne, I hope it’s raining cause I’m ripping off my shirt just like he did.

So I have to ask: What is weighing YOU down? Check some of your relationships. Are some of them just a drain? Have they been a drain? Can you cut the cord or minimize the damage? Is there something you can quit right now that would make you free?

The Weight I Carry and the Weight I’ve Lost

Well, I’ve lost about 30 lbs since I got here. I wish it was more. I started at 246 (wow) and now I’m at 215-217. I’ve lost some strength but become a better runner. (I prefer the bike, but doesn’t get my heartrate up like running.) I do look like an ape that has just been tranquilized when I run and I don’t care anymore (tomorrow I’m going to try to run 2.5 miles. My pace is horrible. I don’t care.)
But when I go from base to base, the picture is what I take with me everywhere I go: backpack with clothes and my CPAP machine, two sheets and small green blanket. I bring seven computers with me to train (and my personal one.) Those are in that big case. Sleeping bag, vest, helmet, projector and my personal bag (books, paperwork, etc.)
How much does it ALL weigh? 213 lbs. I drag that on choppers and planes. I bring it to my room. Most of time I have help and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I lift this into choppers and sometimes they do it for me. 11 months. I can deadlift a lot. But I’m looking forward to not having to pack and repack, carry and lift and struggle. I’m leaving behind carrying things I don’t need, the things that weigh me down, that tire me out.

THE UNFORSEEN POWER OF POSTCARDS

Chris Guillebeau on his blog asked people to post something they could offer for free and I offered postcards. Just a postcard from Afghanistan and if they wanted some marketing advice, I could give that. I said the first five and you know what a softy I am. So I’m sending twelve cards—some asking it for their classroom and some asking some great advice on marketing.
It’s a funny thing, these cards (they cost me 25 cents). They have some how connected me to hundreds of people across the world. From Taiwan to Malta, Essex county to Canada. These simple pieces of cardboard traverse a far away land to show up at your door.
They mean lots of connections and lots of fun in the mailbox. And I think I’m going to keep going with these. I’ll send them from Australia and maybe wherever I land in the states.
It’s a simple thing that people love. They’ll decorate the fridge for awhile and maybe I’ll see one or two.
But most importantly, they give clean water to people who have never had it.

I TEND TO OVER-PANIC EVERYTHING.

I made a typo on my form on my pre-flight information—instead of April 17 I put `7. So now my flight information is screwed. Options:
  1. It will be fixed.
  2. I will leave early.
  3. I will not go to Australia.
Those are my options. Sorry, I don’t feel much like a discussion right now because I’ve put all my chips on this huge plan of traveling and seeing Australia and getting out of here.
And my left pinky finger may have screwed it up.
Oh and my brain. That too.

THE ANXIETY VIRUS

It’s the other side of the coin now. It’s the other side of the fence.
The anxiety of this place is starting to get back to me, but not like before, not like my first month. It’s this tension of being almost home and totally not. It’s the tension of having my foot out the door and still being here. It’s the stress of feeling like I’m done here and I’m still here.
But I have to hold strong and I have to keep going and I have to finish well.
Because it’s bleeding into everything—I can’t really read much and I’ve run out of projects. So I’m just treading right now and my arms are tired—but I’m down to 27 days.
And at one point it was 367.
At one point it was 367.
And now it’s 27.
And I’m nearly there.

Viva La Vida

Let me just say that Coldplay is doing everything right in launching its new album, Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends. The entire album can be heard for free on the band’s MySpace page, prior to street date, June 17. (It’s selling for $9.99 on amazon.com, an enticing price; $12.99 Canadian.) Giving people the opportunity to hear it first generates excitement and goodwill for where the real money is made-the tour, which was announced around the same time.
I have a weird relationship with Coldplay. I LOVED Parachutes. Who didn’t? And then the follow-up, Rush of Blood to the Head, was just as good. But something strange happened with the third album, X&Y. I went to see one of their shows at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto (March ‘06), and it was so over the top. They were shooting it for a DVD, and everything was so exaggerated. It was annoying. I mean, here’s this band that writes gorgeous, subtle pop songs, and there’s frontman Chris Martin running around. The lights were kept on and Martin was even elevated above the piano so that the cameras could get good shots. It was a sudden turn-off, and I immediately didn’t care about them anymore. I even recall balloons, or maybe I’ve just imagined the worse possible scenario now.
But they did the right thing for this album. They took their time, hired producer Brian Eno (a master at ambience—just listen to his work with U2), and stretched out as composers/artists. Coldplay’s now got rhythm. There’s exotic instrumentation from Middle Eastern to African and Spanish. It just takes their winning direction to a unique place. They couldn’t have kept doing the same thing. It would’ve been Death To All Their Fans.

Money Saving Tips for Mass Transit Commuters

Mass transportation is a very popular, very viable means of commuting for professionals working in cities that are not close to their homes. Many choose to live in a suburb but work in a nearby city because of better pay and/or more opportunities for people in their industry.
After college, I spent a year commuting from my home in New Jersey to my job in New York City by bus. Riding a public bus when you’re 6′5 with a fractured knee is bad. Having to pay the full cost of the commute yourself when you’re making pennies is worse.
Below are some tips and tricks I picked up that could save mass transit commuters hundreds or even thousands of dollars in transportation expenses per year.
Buy your tickets in bulk
The bus line I rode in and out of Manhattan gave commuters the option to buy a 20-pack of tickets for less than 20 individually-purchased tickets would cost. For my particular route, the 20-pack worked out to be $22.65 cheaper for every 20 tickets.
Math time!
20 tickets divided by two trips per day equals 10 days per 20-pack of tickets
240 work days divided by 10 days per pack of tickets equals 24 packs per year
$22.65 saved on every pack, multiplied by 24 packs is an annual savings of $543.60!
When you’re getting double-taxed and commuting every working day of the year, $543.60 is a lot of money saved. Additionally, tickets purchased before a fare increase (think gasoline surcharges) may be grandfathered, depending on the policy of your local mass transit line.
Buy unused tickets from others
When I left my job in NYC, I had quite a stockpile of unused bus tickets, the cost of which I foolishly ended up eating. I would have gladly accepted far less than I paid for the tickets just to cut my losses. There is, however, no shortage of people in similar situations selling their unused tickets, rail passes and metro cards on Craigslist at a significant discount.
Naturally you must be wary of scams and frauds when dealing on Craigslist. Since most of the people selling tickets probably live in your home or work area, though, purchasing in person is very doable. These deals are plentiful in any major metro area, and the savings add up very quickly.
Find a cheaper route nearby
Speaking again of bus lines, many towns have multiple pick-up points that are priced differently depending on their proximity to the final destination. My pick up was actually in my driveway. However, there was another pick up spot within walking distance that was significantly cheaper. How much cheaper?
As I mentioned earlier, I purchased all tickets in 20-packs. This alternate pick up spot was $7.10 less per 20-pack than the one in front of my house. Using the assumption again that I purchased 24 packs of tickets in a year, my total savings would have been $170.40 per year.
Check the routes on your mass transit line’s website or check at their ticket desk to see if there are cheaper pick up / drop off points on your route. If walking isn’t an option, perhaps your spouse or neighbor could drop you off on their way in the mornings.
Get your employer on board with Commuter Choice
Commuter Choice is a program maintained by the Association for Commuter Transportation in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
By participating in the Commuter Choice program, your employer can give $100 per month tax free to their employees for mass transit or vanpooling. The employer can then receive a tax deduction for the total amount paid out to employees. You, meanwhile, get a tax free $100 worth of transportation each month.
This is only one of the incentives offered by Commuter Choice — for a full outline of programs offered to employers and participating cities, visit their Employer Resources page.
Negotiate compensation in place of vacation time
Companies can be very pliable when it comes to negotiating vacation time for a new employee. I’ve seen many cases where an admin-level employee received twice as much vacation time as their boss, because they requested their new employer match the amount of vacation time they had at their last job.
Instead of asking for more vacation time (which doesn’t impress many employers to begin with), run this one by your boss…
A person making $50,000/yr for 240 work days is getting paid $208.33 per day. Those 5 vacation days carry with them a price tag of $1,041.65. That’s over a thousand dollars for five days of your employer getting nothing from you.
Perhaps your boss would rather put that money towards your transportation expenses and have you in the office being productive for those five days. In this negotiation, not only do you cut your expenses, but you also show your employer that your primary concern is not taking time off.
Telecommute one day a week
This is not a possibility for everyone, but if your responsibilities allow it, see if your employer will as well. Remote workstations and office virtualization software are very common in companies of all sizes.
If your daily transportation expenses total $10/day, that one day a week spent working from home would save you around $480 per year!
Commuting for your job can be tough on anyone, but it doesn’t have to clean you our financially. Question the price tag attached to every aspect of what it costs you to be gainfully employed and accept no expense at face value.
What other ways of saving on your transportation costs can you find?
Update: About an hour after publishing this post, I saw that Sasha over at Consumerism Commentary posted about the Chase Commuter Cash card. The card gives cash rewards for money spent on certain transportation expenses in NYC.

My Sanity Might Just Be in Question

I’m not sane all the time apparently.
If you’ve ever taken the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, you either fall into a category of a “P” which is a perceiver or a “J”, a judger.
Perceivers are the people who go with the flow; they see time as flowing. It doesn’t have limits or caps. Whatever we do, we just do.
Perceivers are my arch-nemeses. Can’t stand them. They let stuff roll off their back and shrug their shoulders. They believe things will work out.
I’m a Judger. Yes, that’s a captial “J”. Judgers see time as blocks. We run our schedule by the clock. We want to know what is going on next; we have a task list and we don’t want to get behind. No, it’s not all going to work out. We don’t go by our instincts and change everything at the last minute.
We like things decided.
And I have to admit, after nearly 40 years that my Judging attitude is killing me.
One reason I worry is that I don’t want to forget. I want to solve the problem. I think if I have a lassie-faire attitude then people will perceive me as weak or uncaring.
I’m anything but uncaring. I care too much, I guess.
But I need to realize what I’m capable of, what I can change and what better decisions I can make.
Now when I was a kid, I worried all the time. I just did. I worried so much that kids teased me about how much I worried. I worried about getting teased about how much I worried.
I can’t tell you how many times I threw up over my nerves, how many headaches I have suffered through wondering if the right result would happen.
My worrying and my anxiety is in exact opposition of faith. Worry is the antithesis of faith; they cannot co-exist. One must vacate.
I choose worry because it gives this horrible, cancerous illusion that I’m in control and God isn’t. It gives me this power tainted in soul-draining arrogance that I can control what is outside my limits (how people perceive me, etc.)
I told the chaplain: “I’m actually worried more about doing well in my job more than dying out here.”
The chaplain recently told me after I spoke to him about such worry and anxiety. “Are you Mr. Negative today?”
“Yes, chaplain, I am.”
He told me—”Jesus wasn’t this nice guy that said ‘Whatever you can’t carry, give to Me.’ What he said was, ‘Give it all to me. And I’ll give you rest.’”
I need rest in the worst way. But if I give it over, if I hand over my burdens then what to do I do with all my time? Why do I feel the need to pull myself up with my own bootstraps and give myself an ulcer?
Because Ryan McRae needs to be in control of everything. He needs to have his time regulated and things go on his schedule because if they don’t, then something must be wrong with the totality of the universe.
So I’m doing that. Giving my burdens to God. It’s cliche, oh trust me. And as the chaplain will call me “Mr. M.Div.”, how do I not know this? How easily do I forget?
We’ll see. Stay tuned faithful and loyal reader.
I’m heading out tomorrow to a base to work. I don’t know if the internet is awesome out there, but you’ll hear fro me soon.
Stay safe, pray for me and love one another. I’ll see you soon.

My Dark Passenger.

Like I said earlier, I have had the worst night’s sleep. I lie awake and here are just a few of the thoughts I have running around my head. Note, the darker ones I’m leaving out. They would make Stephen King throw up in the kitchen. These are the lighter ones and they are 100% true.
  • I should beg for my old job back. They haven’t hired my replacement. I’ll work for 40% less.
  • I’m going to wind up on my parents’ couch/old room. I’m almost 40.
  • How fast can I get out of here? I mean, if I sock someone in the nose, they have to send me back, right?
  • (Replaying all the goodbyes I said before I left to the soundtrack of  “Everybody Hurts” by REM or anything by Sarah McLaughlin.) Not kidding.
  • If I leave early, I will have to explain over and over what happened. I’d rather just move to Montana and keep it quiet. Maybe I can be a fry cook.
  • How much money will I have in the bank if I leave right now? Oooooo, that isn’t enough. I’ll be homeless.
  • I am a failure. I am a failure. I am a failure. You made a horrible mistake. You have shipwrecked your life and your friends are all laughing at you. You’ll never get a job back in the States.
  • No one will take you in. Maybe your parents.
  • You are worthless here.
  • God is absent. I am forgotten.
Now, I know these are lies. I get that now. Right now I’m in a coherent, clear state. It’s sunny out. I’ve showered and dressed with a couple of cups of coffee running through my veins. But when I’m struggling to sleep, when all I can do is toss and turn, this voice comes alive in my head and my chest burns. It repeats over and over these horrible things. So soon I will be taking on the task of memorizing and writing out the Psalms. I need to somehow combat it.
I have to ask you though, my voice, my dark passenger right now comes at a shout, a deafening yell. But I bet underneath it all there is a dark passenger in all of us. Whispering. Telling us we are a failure.We are no good.
But is that true? Is that what our Father would say to us?
Ask God to kill that voice. Because when you are at your weakest, it will grow and grow.
Stay safe.

LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING

I’d rather ride in a convoy with my Kevlar helmet on (and the chin strap still isn’t right) and my vest and drive down open roads than lie awake at night in my bunk and feel the minutes tick by.
So one day I quit my job and moved to Afghanistan.
I loved my job but I was burning out on it; I needed a break. I needed to hit the reboot on my life. Not that my life had crashed, but everything was just grinding down. My life was good; I had a good job that provided a lot; I had respect from colleagues and I had friends and a great church. I lived in San Diego for Pete’s sake and hadn’t shoveled snow in 8 years.
So a friend mentioned this job, working and training on radiation trucks in Afghanistan for one year. I’d travel from base to base. Have a lot of downtime.
And I said yes. Did I think it all the way through? No. No I did not. I was not prepared for the isolation, the crippling loneliness and the dark nights of the soul, but I’m getting better here on Day 5. I’ve learned quite quickly to depend on my faith and I have a new love and respect for Facebook and Skype. Let me tell you.
Friends have asked, “Are you afraid?” Simply, yes. Yes, I’m afraid. But I’m not really afraid of mortars and suicide bombers (those are REAL by the way. REAL.) I’m not. I’m afraid that I will fail in this journey, that I will punch my ticket way too early and head home hanging my head down and shame. I’ll be unemployed; I’ll wind up on someone’s couch wondering how I took a stupid idea and killed a great part of my life.
I’m still struggling to figure out the radiation trucks. I’m struggling to fill my time and conquer my jet lag. Every day has been a struggle of mammoth proportion.
But I said yes. I moved out of my very comfortable apartment. I got on the plane and filled out more paperwork than you can imagine.
I’m seeking out potential friends like a jackal looking for a wounded gazelle because I know that without community, without friendship, my heart wilts.
So this blog will be about my adventures and thoughts. People here and over in the States who’ve inspired me to be here and stay here.
Pray for this man as learns to be brave.