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.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Simplicity Offered in this Place

There is nothing polished here in Afghanistan, nothing impressive. No one owns a car or a yard. No one has the newest style. We do not discuss what happened on television or in a recent book.
We do not go to the newest restaurant or our favorite place. We never exclaim, “That’s new.”
We live in tension here, the constant thought of this is where we do not belong. We must be ready all the time, ready to hide, ready to move, and ready to go.
We do not have a schedule or even a semblance of entitlement here. We are fortunate for new food in the DFAC or bedsheets.
Currently I’m stranded on this base because I didn’t know I needed to put in a request four days in advance. No one told me.
We do not judge here. Your pants are dirty? Fine. Your hair is a bit unkempt. Fine. What we care about is being safe and counting down the days for home.
We have to wait 2 weeks for stuff to get here from Amazon regardless if you have a “prime” account. We only order what matters, what we need.
I cannot buy stuff here because I don’t want to haul it back. Everything I buy I commit to leaving behind. It sounds wasteful, but I don’t buy much. Anything I leave behind the next guy will use, just like he did for me—whoever he was—thanks for the shampoo.
My Kindle recently broke. I have no access to any of my books, my hundreds of books. It’s not a good situation. I’m a bit—twitchy. I started reading “A Simple Plan”. It’s good, but it makes me tense just reading it. And it’s a book. I’m not used to that. Paper. Turning. Bending pages. Three dimensional.
Convenience is a dream right now, there is nothing immediate here. You either stock up when it’s here or you go without. Someone took my soap that I left in the shower. I’m using shampoo right now. My body is dandruff free.
Everything is bare bones. I sleep with the sound of choppers overhead. I sleep with the possibilty that I may have to evacuate my B-hut in a minute. I put out clothes just in case, my ID is at the ready and it’s just like my old RD days.
We barely have time for anything petty, but at the same time this constant bit of fear drives out a constant amount of compassion. Some guys are cold, but we share the burden of being here. My burden is light compared to the military’s burden. I can go home—they would face jail.
But I think I’m over the initial shock of this place, the loneliness. I’ve managed to connect with three chaplains now. It’s like I’m collecting Pokemon…gotta catch them all. They are good men and I’m wondering if that’s the path i should go down–being a military chaplain, if that’s the life I want to live. I might want to do it for the attention, the honor and the prestige. Notice the word “service” is lacking from that list. Yeah, I did too.
I’m getting into the rhythm of the place. It’s just an adjustment, making your own rules and grooves about different things. I have to write every day at least a 1,000 words. Work out. Read. Connect/meet one person. So far I’m on track. I miss the gym occasionally or don’t get my reading done, but having goals has kept my mind from falling into the pit I know so well.
But again, there is nothing polished here. There is no entertainment unless you craft it yourself. I know guys who sleep all the time, watch porn or series upon series of movies, etc. One guy I met is burning through nearly all the 80′s series he can get ahold of. Really, the 80′s?
I mean I want to watch some TV (how good is Fringe right now? HOW GOOD IS FRINGE RIGHT NOW? IT’S REALLY GOOD. Spoiler: no one watches Fringe at my base.) but I don’t want it to be my thing. I want to build something, not just gorge on something someone else already created. I want to leave here with a ton of accomplishments, a life set up when I return to the states.
And I want to keep what I’m taking here from Afghanistan, a view of a world where nothing is polished, you need to impress no one, and life is simple.
Minus the rifles and choppers.

Highlighting Those Doing Epic Work

I’m a blessed guy. I’m healthy with the occasional kidney stone. I’m educated and have had a lot of great opportunities in my life. I’m not as well traveled as I’d like, well, except for, well you know.
But probably my greatest blessing is my friends and I’m going to take some time to highlight friends of mine during this blog (and here’s a clue: I’m starting to run dry on material. Writing 750-1000 every day for publication is WORK my friends. I may have to tone it down a bit. Big Papa gets tired!)

On the left is my buddy Steve Boutry. This is with our friend Cuban John.
Steve is a college pastor out in rowdy Boston, MA. He works with college students all around Boston and the people in his neighborhood, bringing Good News. He takes students to Salem on Halloween (you know, witches) to serve the community there.
Last year I had the opportunity to go out there and help serve. I helped give away free hot chocolate. I literally pointed at people and said, “Green Lantern gets hot chocolate! Batman gets hot chocolate! Optimus Prime gets hot chocolate! Scary ghost gets hot chocolate! Ginger gets—-a handshake, with a gloved hand, but no touching.”
What’s strange about Steve and I’s friendship is that we are nothing alike. He’s reserved, introverted, and I’m anything but reserved. I’m unreserved. Clearly.
We met way back at Mount Hermon conference center in 2003 when I was a camp pastor and he was working with college students. We hung out all the time, playing board games, and I read to him and other guys, the book Holes.
It was one of the few summers where obligation and responsibility had taken a back seat. It was just ministry, beach trips, late night talks and campfires. A great time.
Then soon after I moved to Salinas to work at Cal State San Marcos, and there was Steve Boutry. We did college ministry together and epic things together. We discovered Donald Miller together. Yeah, we discovered him. You’re welcome, Don.
You’d look at us and say, “Why are you two friends?”
Great question.
We are friends because we need people who are completely like us and unlike us to bond together. On the surface we are ying and yang. He loves sports, and I love video games. He’s athletic and loves running. I only like to run if there’s a zombie behind me. He has awesome taste in music. I love Bruce Hornsby. I stand by that.
But Steve and I are both pretty empathic. We love Macintosh products. We have a heart for college ministry, ministry that serves and relates. We aren’t big fans of programs. We love board games (DIXIT!)We are avid readers. And we are hilarious.
Steve brings balance to this crazy, high strung guy and he’s doing epic work. He depends on people giving to his ministry to continue this epicocity.
I even stood up in his wedding. Best Man. Big Speech. No pressure. NAILED IT!
I think we lose out a lot in life if we are looking for friends of ours to be clones, to be just like us so we can talk about things that we like, we know, instead of having friends who challenge us and offer us a different side.
On paper, man, we would not be matched up, but that’s the glorious, actual glorious thing about friendship. If we do not put our own selfish boundaries on the possibilities of friendship, we wind up surrounded by the best people.
Now, I will gravitate towards the known. I am a member of a fraternity and a gaming group called the “Fur Trappers”, but the more and more I get older, the more I realize that branching out and finding friendships that don’t fulfill the definition of myself but stretch the definition is where I need to head.
And as I’m going through this journey in Afghanistan, I’m finding friends along the way that might be able to that:
Tony: Moved here from Kenya. He’s supporting his family by working in the coffee shop 12 hours as day. Every day.
Lee: Manages a ton of contracts out here. Good guy. Has two disabled sons. He can’t find a job in the states.
Mike: Runs the education facility here. We’re going to play in a chess tournament later. I plan on losing ungraciously.
Steve Boutry is one of my greatest friends and I hope that when I return to the States, and arrive in Boston, he’s waiting for me in the train station (with Dunkin Donuts coffee and a donut. Chocolate cake. Glazed.)

Finding My Way in the Darkness of Afghanistan

Afghanistan can be a dark place. I’m not talking spiritually; I’m talking actually dark. I was recently at a FOB (Forward Operating Base) that is lights out. This means that they have no lights around the base at night, barely any.
It gets pitch black. You can barely see you hand in front of your face or whatever cliche you pick. Why do they do this you ask? Because they don’t want snipers to shoot you.
Yay for darkness!
I went to the MWR (place where the internet and TV live) and worked on my writing and reading (update: kindle broke. Ruh-roh. I have to send it to get fixed. Ugh.) When I exited, I had a small flashlight and poor sense of direction.
Above me were stars, more stars than I’ve seen on my short trip here (A MONTH!) and far into the southern horizon, a storm was approaching. There was lightning every 5 seconds and somewhere I took a wrong turn. Surprise, surprise.
I started to panic and I looked around and saw nothing familiar and there was no one around.
But I had a paved road underneath my feet. This was the key. I knew that if I stayed on it, I could find my way back to my tent. So I just walked and looked occasionally for a familiar view. After about ten minutes, I saw the Eye in the Sky, a large blimp they fly to get aerial views of the surrounding areas. That was my landmark.
So I walked towards it, found my tent, and headed to bed.
I tend to panic when I get lost. I tend to just take the next turn and get frustrated. And soon despair arrives. I refuse to stay calm and think.
But in the darkness, with only a small light, looking for my bed while a storm approaches, the Psalm just writes itself. I’m learning to not depend on my knowledge or my plan. Well, I’m lost. Let me look around. I’ll just keep walking. If I stay on the paved road, I have to run into it. I can’t get out of here, so I’ll eventually be where I need to be.
One of my spiritual disciplines while I’m here is writing out the Psalms. I’m writing them out, meditating on and journaling about them. And I constantly see how God is our stronghold, a place to dwell.
I picture His stronghold like a huge fortress, something out of a Tolkien dream. I picture my stronghold like a wet cardboard box with crayon cannons drawn on it. So as I wandered this military base, this highly fortified structure, I thought, why should I be afraid. Where could I possibly go? (I know you’re thinking, um, you wandering around with a flashlight in the dark in Afghanistan. . . disaster. True.)
And I’m hoping when I return to the states I’m less fearful. Right now I’m facing my “mentor” in this job relocating and I’m going to be training soldiers by myself. I’ve been nervous about that. Scared actually, but where can I run to now? I can’t quit and just get a job at Barnes and Noble (which might be fun). I have to stick this out.
But I’m getting less scared of this place, (not less careful), but I don’t feel this overwhelming dread. I’m starting to get a hang of the place, the rules and culture, the community and people.
I make sure that I say hello to every chaplain at every FOB. They’ve been a great asset and I know where to go when I find myself troubled. (Plus, they like the fact I have an M.Div. It’s like high level chaplain clearance here.)
I’m hoping this slow ebbing away of fear gives room for bravery to show up. I’m hoping I’m brave enough to use this money I’m earning to start a business, get a place to live and start it all up again. Turning 39 has certain rocked me a bit (where has the time gone?) and I want to really fashion the life I want when I get back, not what I’m conformed into, not whatever is second place.
I’m not scared of the dark here in Afghanistan anymore. The panic doesn’t grip my heart. I’ll find my way back. And I’ll just follow the road laid out for me, ahead of time.
But let’s be clear, I’m no fool.
Wherever I go I have my flashlight.

Actually Liking Afghanistan? What?

Every day I’m trying to find things that I like about Afghanistan. I won’t go as far as to say “love”. I will try and love people, but not anything here in Afghanistan.
I don’t picture myself looking back on this experience and misses the DFAC or the rocky road I walk every day. Maybe the chopper rides.
So here are just a couple of things that I like:
  • I’m surrounded by snowcapped mountains. You would think that Afghanistan is just a wasteland of desert, but actually parts of it are beautiful.
  • I like the food. It’s not the greatest. It’s like eating at Golden Corral or Hometown Buffet every day. And I mean, every day.
  • I like the gyms. They are a little smelly, but the equipment is great and there’s plenty of water and towels.
  • I like the chapel services. They always end on time, to the point and very applicable. There is no room for esoteric theology here in Afghanistan. Here’s what you need to remember, think about, meditate on and/or do.
  • I like my room. From what I hear I have a Illinois Avenue of rooms. My friends and people I’ve talked to have more of a Baltic Avenue. I’m just past Free Parking and I like that.
  • I like my gadgets that I brought. Last night I curled up with my Kindle and iPad. I was a happy guy. I’ve been playing Settlers of Catan on my iPad before I go to bed. I kill it, man, I just kill it.
  • I (am just beginning to) like the isolation. I’m in my head a lot. I listen to podcasts (have you listened to the Sklar brothers? Holy cow. Hilarious.) I’m used to sitting the DFAC alone.
  • I like the disciplines I’m gaining. Every day I’m writing at least 750 words, hitting the gym, reading (slacking on this. . . .everything is so loud here), and doing a Bible study. I’m hoping these carry on wherever I am.
  • I like social media. This shouldn’t be a shock, but I’m telling you Facebook is like a lifeline back home. You have no idea how happy it makes me to troll the News page and just see what people are doing. Spoiler: you are all having kids, dealing with kids or seeing Avengers right now.
  • I like Skype and Facetime. Just seeing a friendly face, a loving voice, seems to bring me home for a second. But like anything, if I do that too much, I’m in trouble. I don’t want to virtually be at home. I just want to be at home.
Now, I’m not about to start a gratitude journal. Let’s just slow down there. Maybe I could start one on the back of a napkin, but this is as good start as any.
Part of me really wants to become accustomed to this place, used to it, finding the routine. Another part of me wails against this idea. The other half wants to be the same person who got off the plane, who just disassociates from this place and burns the time until May 1st, 2013. But I think that other half is going to lose and fall hard.
Knowing who I am, the guy who feels about everything, I can’t keep the wall up that long. I can’t resign myself to not feeling. It would be the equivalent of numbing out with alcohol (and I’ve seen Intervention and we all know what happens there.)
I really want to master my job, and get good at it. It’s been a slow start where my fellow patriots are getting their PhD in this stuff. I’m still eating glue in the corner.
So I’m going to choose to grow accustomed to this place. Now, I still make my errors. For example: everyday I forget to take something when I shower: shower shoes, soap, shampoo, towel. I just want a week where I don’t lose something, forget something or screw it up (I’ve been on a tear in that department, more on that later when I don’t feel like crap about it.) And those of you who know me well are asking, “Well have you ever gone a week without forgetting something, Ryan?”
And my reply to that is: “That’s not very nice. I’m in Afghanistan.”
But building these routines, finding stuff I like everyday helps me put a shield up. So that when I am missing home, when I missing out on life and the people I love, I fall back on my routines. I have another box I have to check. I have another task ahead of me. And soon that task will be, “Pack for home.”

Avengers, My Birthday, and My Greatest Flaw

I spent my birthday probably in the best way I could have here in sunny Afghanistan:
I had a bootleg copy of the Avengers and watched it with one of the chaplains, Dom, and his buddies. My buddies, I guess.
When I woke that morning, people Skyped me and said, “What are you doing for your birthday? Where are you going?”
I had to laugh because there is absolutely nowhere special you can go. We have one place to eat, a couple of shops and the post office. That’s my circuit. But at the DFAC I managed to eat with people each time.
People would ask:
“Can you go into town for your birthday?”
“Um, no. We don’t go into town. Ever.”
But it was nice to Skype and Facetime with people; it’s nice to hear their voices, see their faces. It’s been pretty boring here, so it’s hard to answer the question, “What’s new?” Also, because of my location I can’t get too specific.
Rules for Skype:
  • Please don’t say, “We miss you.” I will cry.
  • Don’t ask: “Do you want to come home?” (or any variation) The answer is yes. I will cry.
  • Don’t make me cry. I live with 3 other guys and the walls are literally a piece of plywood 6 ft up.
So these buddies of mine, we watched a copy of Avengers and heard people cough in the audience. We heard people eating popcorn. And it was just great. We cheered and laughed. They asked me questions about the superheroes and I used my geek ability to explain that Wasp, Scarlet Witch and Vision were not in this movie. And where was Hawkeye’s purple costume?
I don’t remember many of my birthdays from ages 30-37. My 38th I spent with my church family. My 39th I spent with my Afghanistan friends. And my 40th I plan on getting on a flight home. I will remember that birthday. I never thought I’d look forward to being 40. Oh, no. Let’s do this.
(Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the Avengers. It’s a line from the movie. It’s just a line and a scene.)
In one scene of the movie, the Avengers needs Dr. Banner to transform into the Hulk—quickly. There is a huge creature coming their way and it is only in the Hulk’s league. “We need you to get angry, Dr. Banner. Like now.”
Dr. Banner approaches the huge monster coming at them and says, “That’s my secret. I’m always angry.” He controls his metamorphosis into the Hulk and proceeds to smash.
You see, that’s my secret as well.
hulk-red-lantern-197x300I’ve always struggled with anger. I’ve always been the one to either blow his lid or brood, bitter and raging. I think because I was bullied for most of my childhood and adolesence that I’ve been so sensitive to it that I either become completely passive-agressive or I just rage. My dial is either at a 1 or 10. That’s it. No number 5. No soothing number 3.
When someone is bullying or manipulating me, taking their power and using to wound me, I just flip out. And let me be clear, I am always fearful of letting my anger extinguish a friendship. I’m afraid I’ll blow my lid, in my heart end the friendship and never speak to the person again. When I’m in “rage mode” as my friend Steve calls it, I will cut a friendship from my life like a piece of string regardless of how long we have been friends. (Ironically when this has happened to me, where people seem to be pissed, drop me and not speak to me, it really hurts me. So let’s add hypocrisy to the list, shall we?)
I’ve been like since I can remember. And like the Hulk I will just smash and smash, not even thinking of the damage I’m causing or the words I’m saying. My tongue is lit from the fires of hell.
I have a ton of triggers, stuff that when it happens, my frontal lobe lights up like U2 stage and the rational part is cuffed in a chair. Now I almost listed hem here, but I’m afraid people would use them to get a rise out of me. (Another peeve, when I tell people that something bugs me and they do it to be “funny”. I think bloody noses are funny. So let’s team up.)
But I’ve gotten a handle on it. From ages 32-36, I was pretty much a rage-aholic. I needed it. It fueled me.  I had to get a handle on it because I was starting to lose people. It was starting to alter me permanently. Instead of me just choosing to be angry, I was starting to do it day by day.  But around 37 I started getting it under control. I learned how to use my anger to my advantage and let my rational brain start to have some control back.
Here’s how I got my anger problem managed:
  • Diagnosed sleep apnea. I got tested and the nurse said, “Sir, you are one of the worst people we’ve seen in a long time.” Now I had a ton of people say, “You don’t have sleep apnea. You must be dreaming.” No, I wasn’t dreaming. That was the problem. Once I got my sleep under control and went back to dreaming, I was a lot better.
  • Exercise. I’ve talked on and on about Crossfit and getting back into shape.
  • Prayer and study. Going back to my spiritual disciplines has been monumental in helping in this way. I’ve basically mediated on “Love your enemies” for about 2 years.
  • Community. Once I found a church, friends and a gym, everything was easier. I could talk about my struggles and face them either by doing 265 lb. back squat or getting a beer at Stone Brewery. Stone. . ..
  • Stopped playing poker regularly. I used to play poker about 4 times a week and then I started playing about 4 times a year. I became a much better player, slept better and didn’t wake up with the “You lost a lot of money” hangover.
To crossover to another comic universe, friends have at times asked me what superhero I identify with, who would I be?
I hang my head at this point and say, “Red Lantern. He gets his power from rage. The more angry he is, the stronger, more powerful he is.”
Really?
Really.
When I get off that plane from Afghanistan, I hope that my ring isn’t red anymore. I hope it’s another color. One of hope or compassion, one of love and friendship.
That is my daily prayer.