ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Weston Ochse is a former intelligence officer and special operations soldier who has engaged enemy combatants, terrorists, narco smugglers, and human traffickers. His personal war stories include performing humanitarian operations over Bangladesh, being deployed to Afghanistan, and a near miss being cannibalized in Papua New Guinea. His fiction and non-fiction has been praised by USA Today, The Atlantic, The New York Post, The Financial Times of London, and Publishers Weekly. The American Library Association labeled him one of the Major Horror Authors of the 21st Century. His work has also won the Bram Stoker Award, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and won multiple New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. A writer of more than 26 books in multiple genres, his military supernatural series SEAL Team 666 has been optioned to be a movie starring Dwayne Johnson. His military sci fi series, which starts with Grunt Life, has been praised for its PTSD-positive depiction of soldiers at peace and at war. Weston likes to be called a chaotic good paladin and challenges anyone to disagree. After all, no one can really stand a goody two-shoes lawful good character. They can be so annoying. It's so much more fun to be chaotic, even when you're striving to save the world. You can argue with him about this and other things online at Living Dangerously or on Facebook at Badasswriter. All content of this blog is copywrited by Weston Ochse.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Luminaries - Organization, Construction, and Victorian Plot Devices - A Writer's View

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As many of you already know from reading my blog, I most often read outside of my own genres of science fiction, horror and thriller. It's not that I don't love my genres because I do. I heart them magnificently. It's just that I want to see other styles and other voices and perhaps in the end bring something new back into my genres that wasn't necessarily there. But what books to read? Where do I go?
Well...

I cheat.

I look for award-winning books and read them to try and understand why the book won an award. I read Pulitzer Prize books and Man Booker Prize Books. I read National Book Award Books. I read books that are shortlisted. I read books that booksellers tell me are similar to books that won awards. For the most part, these books hold my attention. About half the time I can see and appreciate why the books won the award they did. And sometimes, like in the case of The Goldfinch and what has become my favirote book of all time, A Little Life, I find myself just overjoyed with the privilege of reading an amazing book.

I recently read Luminaries: A Novel by Elizabeth Catton which won the 2013 Man Booker Prize. This prize is awarded annually to the best book written in English and published in the UK. At 28, she is the youngest to have won this award.

Laura Miller of Salon.com breaks it down like Donkey Kong for us. "From the first five pages of "The Luminaries," it's evident that Catton's model is the Victorian "sensation novel," in which middle-class characters were suddenly confronted with alarming, inexplicable and uncanny events whose true causes and (usually scandalous) nature are gradually revealed in the course of the story. The best-known examples of these are "The Woman in White" and "The Moonstone" by Wilkie Collins, and it's safe to say that if you are one of Collins' avid modern-day fans, you'll be in clover with "The Luminaries." But if Collins' novels are rich in reversals and twists, Catton's is a veritable Gothic cathedral of plot, so complex and intricate that most readers will find themselves doubling back to make sure they've got it all straight. "The Luminaries" might have been written with the sole intention of disproving the canard that literary fiction is short on old-fashioned storytelling. There's enough plot here to fill four novels.

And there is. There's plot galore. Every character has their own complete arc and you learn, for good or bad, who they are, why they are, and what happens to them. Just look at the character map below. This means that the book is a big book. 

And it is. 

The question you are asking was did it drag. And that's an excellent question. 

To that I will answer yes and no.

Yes, it dragged because of two reasons. 1) I needed time to get into the writing style. The first third of the book is written in a Victorian style that gets its power from revolving narrators and their ability to dramatically deliver rumor and gossip. In fact, much of the plot is propelled by gossip, one character detailing what another character is doing and so on. Once into it, I found the narrative style both intriguing and engaging. and 2), also, because of the order that the author chose to present the plot-- basically the organization structure of the novel.  It took me a few literary moments to Grok what she was doing, but once I was, I enjoyed the way the plot was presented.

John Mullan of The Guardian asks: Has a novel ever been more strangely yet elaborately organised?  

I don't think so. What I do wonder is what the book looked like when it was turned into the editor. Was it the editors idea to organize it in such a way or was it the authors. I can almost see the novel presented for publication, only to have an editor with a grand scheme choose to reorganize it. In fact, you'll note that much of the action in the book goes in reverse.

Additionally, the book has been organized around astrological symbols. I didn't get this. Maybe I just didn't get that part of it. I didn't miss anything, but it appeared to be more of an organizational gimmick than was necessary. Of course, the idea of astrology and mysticism does buy into the Victorian ideal, so it was fitting as a plot device. I'm just not sure if it worked as an organizational device. 
 
Mullan goes on to explain: Some reviewers have been exasperated: how could such hocus pocus provide the ground plan for a serious work of fiction? (Though literary critics forgive Chaucer for organising Troilus and Criseyde by astrological principles and Spenser for using the zodiac in The Faerie Queene.) Others were admiring but befuddled: were we expected to comprehend the notes about celestial precession or work out which sign of the zodiac had been allotted to which character? Readers of James Joyce's Ulysses should know their way around The Odyssey; are Catton's readers expected to make narrative sense of the astrological charts that preface each part of The Luminaries?

Exactly. If I was expected to understand, then the failure was in the presentation, because it appears I was not alone. 

Mullan further explains, The astrological scheme also controls the novel's chronology ("In deference
to the harmony of the turning spheres of time"). The Luminaries is divided into 12 dated parts, spaced at almost monthly intervals. We begin on 27 January 1866, but in Part Four, dated 27 April 1866, we also go back to the events of a year earlier, and the remaining eight parts replay the events of 1865, moving phase by phase through the zodiacal pattern. This is the most elaborate machinery of all, because the decreasing lengths of the succeeding parts mimic the waning moon, each part being half
the length of the one before it.


After reading this last bit of Mullan's explanation, now I understand how the novel's chapters became shorter and shorter. In retrospect it made complete sense. Maybe I am coming to understand the organization after all.

My only issue with the novel was its lack of a sense of place; and maybe that's because I've been to many gold rush towns so I am not the common reader. In this case, the author who hails from New Zealand set the work in her home country. I thought I'd find the sense of place stronger, but I didn't. I think the failure, here, if it can even be called a failure--seems too strong of a word-- is that the sense of place was concentrated on a Gold Rush Mining Town rather than New Zealand. The town could have been picked up and placed anywhere on the planet. Everything about it would have fit in Deadwood or Tombstone with the exception of the shipping and tall ships. Intriguingly enough, I felt more a sense of place at sea in the novel than I did in the terra firma of Hotitka.

For readers, I'd give this a four and a half out of five Donkey Kongs.

For writers, I'd give this a five out of five Donkey Kongs. Not that you'd copy the style, but understanding that there are highly successful ways to organize the plot rather than straightforward narrative is worth the 848 page journey.

About the book's author: Eleanor Catton was born in 1985 in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. She won the 2007 Sunday Star-Times short-story competition, the 2008 Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the 2008 Louis Johnson New Writers' Bursary and was named as one of Amazon's Rising Stars in 2009. Her debut novel, The Rehearsal, won the Betty Trask Prize, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Prix Femina literature award, the abroad category of the Prix Médicis, the University of Wales Dylan Thomas Prize 2010 and Stonewall's Writer of the Year Award 2011, and longlisted for the Orange Prize 2010. In 2010 she was awarded the New Zealand Arts Foundation New Generation Award. (Granta)




The Bagram ICU Staff, Scott Sigler and Two Free Nights Stay

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There's not much I'm going to share about this but suffice it to say that I had need of the ICU out here in Afghanistan for a few days. The men and women who staff it are the very best at what they do and come from all over the planet from different Air Force hospitals and clinics to save those nearest harm's way. I read somewhere they have a 99% survival rate for all gunshot wounds, which is a definite statistic to have in your favor in a war zone.


I also received a care package from friend and fellow author, Scott Sigler (Thanks Scott and AB). He and his team went out of their way to curate a box of mostly wholesome goodness. In case you're wondering, Jalapeno Turkey Jerky makes a terrific midnight snack I decided to share the wealth. So, instead of engorging myself on the great stuff Scott sent from SoCal, I brought it to the ICU and shared it with the staff, because I know that's what Scott would have wanted.


Seeing battle casualties is a terrible thing and nothing like what you see on television. The smell, the energy in the room to save someone, and the quiet professionalism displayed by all is wondrous to behold. I'm glad I had a moment to watch this as it unfolded and to remember what it is that people do. The moment the medivac crew chief showed up in his space-looking helmet and full battle rattle was about as sobering an experience as one could have. The warriors out here are in great hands.

Thank you, Scott. 

Thank you ICU staff!

You all are the best.


PS. Don't ask me what happened.

PSS. I am just fine.

PSSS. Why are you still reading?


.









Monday, April 2, 2018

An Open Letter to My Daughter On Her Birthday

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Dear Alex,


The irony of today is not lost on me. Twenty seven years ago I was in Desert Storm and wasn't there for your first tremulous breaths. Now, twenty seven years later I am in Afghanistan. Not much has changed with me, but a whole lot has changed with you.
I am so very proud of you. You have become an incredible woman who could be an example to so many. Through drive and determination you've found ways to succeed. We've provided you strong and significant role models and you have followed them. From your academic achievements, for which there are many, to your personal achievements, for which there are many more, you constantly make me a proud father and Yvonne a proud, Evil Step Alien Mother.

All that said, you will most always be that young girl, precariously balanced on high heel shoes, wearing the dress we bought for you from Chinatown in L.A.

You will always be the ravishing girl in the super soaker green prom dress.

You will always be my daughter and I am so happy for it.

Happy Birthday, Alex.

We love you most dearly!


Love,

BTAM and ESAM


Ezekial 25:17 - On Inequities of Fact and the Tyranny of Moments

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Evidently, Joshi wrote something about me a week ago. I'm deployed to Afghanistan, so I must have missed it. Thanks for those who pointed it and thanks for standing up for me.

I read Joshi' s Blog Post. You can find it here if you search for his March 24th posting.  He wrote it in response to my defense of two of my fellow authors (here). I noted the inequity that Joshi did not include a link to the post to which he is responding and that in itself is telling. Please take a moment to read both posts so that you can then read what's written below in context, rather than be hostage to the tyranny of the moment.

But first let me address this. Joshi said, "Mr. Ochse believed that speaking about me behind my back was a more admirable course than addressing me directly." This is a common literary ploy to try and achieve the pedestal of the aggrieved. Neither of us are aggrieved. We both understand the game we are playing. He's being intentionally disingenuous.

I addressed Joshi in the same way he addressed Laird Barron and Brian Keene. He wrote an article about how terrible they were and published it without fanfare on his blog. In Laird's case, he proclaimed that Laird had already achieved 'A Fall as a Writer' before his career had barely even begun. In turn, I wrote an article about a man who I felt was a literary bully, who used words like blowhard, schlocky, and plebeian to describe my peers, and posted it on my blog. There was nothing behind his back nor was there anything hidden in the way I responded. I was up front, I was honest, and I was obvious.

But then again, because Joshi didn't link my article, his readers only have his word on the subject, so his comments about me seething with hatred and whining like a baby go uncited, as they should; another example of his attempt to tyrannically own his reader's moments. If you've only read Joshi's article about me and have stumbled onto this article, please take a moment and check out the link I provided for some context. Although you can tell I had some good-natured fun in the article (e.g. ...so it's on the back of an impoverished Rhode Island writer that he's established himself, like a Lady Godiva of Cthlulu), the sentiment of defending my fellow authors from attack was clear.

As I said, I read his post. I actually read it three times. Once as I woke up this morning on my cell phone because many of my friends, fans, and peers were coming to my defense on Facebook. In Afghanistan, we work at least fourteen hour days, so I was pretty bushed after working all of yesterday and last night. I read Joshi's post again after I took a shower, less bleary eyed and almost awake. Then I read it a third time right before I went to work, this time fueled by my coffee and my getting old vitamins.


What amazes me about a supposed academic is that he seemed to limit his research about me to Wikipedia, which has always been a verbotten source to scholars because of its very nature as a source adrift to the whims of its authors. The very fact that Wikipedia isn't anchored in academia makes it a source even this former adjunct professor from a community college, now current professor from a state university, wouldn't allow. But then perhaps this suits Joshi. After all, his slatternly approach to scholarship is evident in his assertion that half of a PhD from Princeton is better than my Master of Fine Arts from National University. Let me just point out that there is no such thing as half of a PhD. Anyone and everyone can drop out or be kicked out of any institution, so claiming achievement from failure is an interesting twist of fact. In his defense, Joshi does indicate that he dropped out rather than was kicked out, so I will not impinge his character, yet he still pathologically claims honors. I hope Joshi understands that half of a PhD is equal to half of a marathon. For those who start either one and don't complete, they receive a DNF beside their name, standing for Did Not Finish.

Still, his scholarship missed the fiction I've had published in peered academic journals as well as my assistant professorship at a New England university. Or did the Half PhD really miss it? After all, a literary bully achieves more by his ability to curate the nature of facts than to deliver the actual magilla. Have I ever had an article in a peered journal? To that, I can say no. I've also never submitted to one for publication, unless you want to call Soldier of Fortune a peered journal, in which I have appeared. My guess is that the global subscription of that single issue in which I appeared was more than all of the issues of Joshi's peered publications combined. And yes, those who publish and read Soldier of Fortune are my peers, the whole ramshackle, bruised, sweaty, soldierly lot of them. Other evidence of Joshi's sloppy scholarship is in his failure to learn that the American Library Association tagged me as "One of the major horror authors of the 21st Century." But then I can't be sure. Is that sloppy scholarship or selectively choosing facts that only appear to support his thesis? Or does he not feel that librarians have earned a position of trust among the hallowed stacks?

My earlier musings over his attacks must have been festering for quite awhile. I'd been anticipating an attack from Joshi for sometime, although I thought he'd wait until I'd redeploy. I found it regrettable, however, that he decided to ignore the more salient points I made in order to present slants that barely resemble my comments. But then it appears he was forced to in order to try and make the points he tried to make. For instance, the title of his article about me is Weston Ochse - World Class Hater. Please go and read my comments and tell me how I am a world class hater? Did I espouse any hate or did I defend those who had been trodden upon by the hob-nailed boot of a self-celebrated half-PhD? I suppose World Class Hater was easier to attack than World Class Defender, because those who know me and my work know that this is me to the core.

Now, I can almost see the Joshi apologists whom we've seen previously populate responses like congratulatory spiderbots now eagerly hunched over their keyboards and madly typing that Joshi is using academic critique, therefore his bullying is acceptable. He is in fact not using critique in his article about me. There is no academic criticism. He doesn't provide any literary criticism to Scarecrow Gods and its attempt to negotiate and explain the onerousness of the Judaeo-Christian imagery associated with our everyday lives, nor does he even mention my attempts to create PTSD-positive characters in my Grunt Life series in order to plumb what it takes to be human. In both, I think I did well, but certainly didn't master the form. No, he doesn't comment on any of my award-winning, award-nominated, or bestselling works, but instead, responds to my comments defending my fellow authors and attacks me as a credible source of information, using his chosen method of layering invenctives as his solitary strategum.

So this was merely an attack.

His counter punch.

Nothing more.

Nothing less.

Whatever.

I could spend all day disassembling Joshi's latest personal attack but that would be a waste of my time, and frankly, yours. Let me just leave with this. If at any time anyone wants to attack me for standing up for my friends or fellow authors, leave out facts, adjust the narrative to better align a point of view that better favors them, call themselves a half a PhD, or make fun of the fact that I actually completed a graduate school while serving in the military full time, then please give me your best shot. I'm open for all comers and I've had better attempts to besmirch my character than this. Because here is the rub, folks. This is about character. His character and mine. You can judge his for yourself, but as to mine, I have spent a lifetime defending those to whom harm would be done.

Now, you'll have to excuse me. I need to get to work. Joshi chose to attack me while I am deployed to Afghanistan, but then based on his self-proclaimed superiority in academia and his hard-earned half PhD from Princeton, I'm sure he realized that and still decided to attack me.

Again... character.

I have serious work to do. There are bad people here who want to travel to my homeland and do worse things to those whom I love. I aim to stop them as best I can. I continue to defend even now, so I know you'll understand that my time has to be spent elsewhere.

Now please go out and read a good book.

Thank a teacher.

And hug a librarian.

I'll leave you with the words of Lil' Kim - "I like to live righteous. And I just want everyone to know I'm not trying to get out of anything."

Peace out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Shoutout: Janz, Sangiovani and Hirshberg

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I've had my nose to the war machine out here in Afghanistan so I apologize for not being keyed in and part of the community like I usually am. I do want to take a moment and talk about three folks.

First of all, big congrats to Mary Sangiovani. I was there when she was talking about submitting her new novella to Cemetery Dance early in 2017. Now that she's actually taken the time to write it, get it edited by an army of garden gnomes and then turn it in, I'm happy to say that the powers that be at Cemetery Dance have gladly accepted it and it will be part of their prestigious Novella Series.

Second, I wanted to make sure everyone was tracking Jonathan Janz. Who is this guy? Jon and I were both guests at Scares That Care last year and I had the honor of listening to him talk about his works in progress. It brought me back to when I was first starting out and I couldn't wait to tell everyone about the demons crawling with ice picks and hammers through my mind. Jon had that same energy. If I'm not mistaken, today marks the first birthday for Janz's 10th novel, Exorcist Falls. Janz writes with a certain violent glee reminiscent of Richard Laymon. Not that they are even the same author, but Janz's characters' naive rollicking through darkness can't help but remind me of how one of the greats approached his own spiked walls of fear early on in his career. Not sure if Exorcist Falls was or is on your radar. If it's not,then it should be before it passes you by.

Finally, I'd love to give a shutout to Glen Hirshberg. His collection The Ones Who Are Waving was born a few days ago from Cemetery Dance Publications. Glen is a writer's writer. I love reading his work. He's won the Shirley Jackson Award and the International Horror Guild Award and even gets consistent love from Publishers Weekly and that never happens unless the words Oprah Book Club appear printed on the front cover of one of your books. Oh, shit. Now I've done it. All of you are going running because you think Glen is a Bridges of Madison County sort of writer. He isn't, but so what if he was. He writes beautifully and dark and his sentences take me wholly unexpected. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of his newest collection.

So there you have it. Reporting from Afghanistan. Three folks who are doing awfully well. Do the world a solid and go read something of theirs, especially if they have something that just came out. Remember, what sells in the first two weeks of publication matters to the future success of authors. So go do your thing and support them.

Now back to the War Machine.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

February Tried To Knock Me Off

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AFGHANISTAN VOL_5-2018. February Tried to Knock Me Off. (Disclaimer: Because of of the safety and sensitivities during this deployment, I will not be divulging my exact location or my mission. Nothing spooky, but because there are fewer American's deployed into the Afghan Theater than in 2013, the threat to life and limb is greater. Please do not ask me questions in relation to those issues I require to keep to myself. What I can tell you is that I am safe behind thousands of pounds of concrete somewhere on Bagram Air Force Base.)


February has been a beast and shows no signs of letting up. We’ve gone twenty two rounds so far and I’ve been pummeled and kicked and head-butted crotch-smacked. For some reason she doesn’t want me around. I’m not sure if it is here in Afghanistan or life in general. Whatever her reason, I will not go down without a fight. Still, as I sit here and write this I am punch drunk with trying to defend myself. I’ve been close several times to being medivaced out of the war zone and I won’t have it. As I told one supervisor, “you’re going to have to strap me down to a pallet to get me out of here because I will not go willingly.”

I arrived at Bagram, Air Force Base at the end of January. Bagram has been a base in Afghanistan since the Soviets (for you Millennials- those were all the countries that used to have been banded together by Russia who wanted to kick the Western World’s ass). They left behind tons of broken junk, not to mention the usual cauldron of toxic metals associated with air bases worldwide. Now Bagram is a U.S. and NATO base and we've brought our own brands of toxicity. 

And it’s winter. Why does that mean anything? Because in winter the weather is cold. Afghans do not have a great electrical grid. Families find it continually challenging to heat their homes. So what do they do? They burn anything that doesn’t move—feces, tires, garbage, dead animals, did I say feces, etc. This adds to the crazy toxic hydrocarbons in the air creating a lovely aromatic cocktail for your lungs. So what did I get? Some type of rare Venetian Bronchitis exacerbated by the horrendous quality of the air. I coughed and hacked my way through my first ten days in country. Some call it The Crud, but by the way I got looks, I had The Exponential Crud

This is from an article in Wired Magazine called Leaked Memo: Afghan 'Burn Pit' Could Wreck Troops' Hearts, Lungs: Any visitor to the sprawling Bagram airfield knows the burn pit – if not by sight, then by smell. It's an acrid, smoldering barbecue of trash, from busted furniture to human waste, usually manned by Afghan employees who cover their noses and mouths with medical breathing masks. Plumes of aerosolized refuse emerge from what troops refer to as "The Shit Pit," mingle with Parwan Province's already dust-heavy air, and sweep over the base.

With my lungs already compromised, I resorted to wearing the mask the government assigned to me and the affects were immediate. I’ve sat in traffic on the 405 in L.A. with a marine layer and 90 degrees in the shade and know what pollution is. I’ve driven New York, Chicago, Phoenix, and any number of U.S. cities and know what the smell of pollution is. I’ve been to Beijing in the winter where you can see the black specks of coal dust in the air and can’t help but breathe them. I’ve even been to Kabul, having deployed there in 2013. Here’s a missive from Senator Ron Wyden (Oregon) to then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in 2012 describing what a scabrous shit hole Kabul really is:


For all of you who think you know what this is like based on something you've experienced in the States, let me just say that no matter how bad it has been for you, this is worse in spades. Not trying to one up anyone. Just stating fact.

So what else did February do to me, you ask.

I had a dark bloody night of the soul. I'm not going to get into it, but by the end of the night, I was all but packed and ready to go, knowing that my evacuation would be swift and efficient. It was a terrible twenty hours, but in the end, everything corrected itself.

Then I sprained my knee. I've tweaked my knee and wrenched my knee, but never really sprained it. I suppose this is what happened. I'd worked out in the gym a couple of times. Once my cough went away, I knew it was time to get down to business, so I began to hit the treadmill. I wasn't running. I was walking. Impact was virtually zero. To crank my heart rate up I increased the elevation to five. In front of me young military studs were running on setting eleven and I was barely walking at setting four. It seemed like something I could do.

I felt a twinge on the side of my left knee. Think more a quick slice from a back alley switchblade that was there one moment, then gone the other. I finished working out. I went back to work. Afterwards, I went to bed. Then I woke up and could barely walk. Okay, this was something new.

My base is long and narrow. It's roughly two football fields from my hooch to my work. It's another football field from my work to where we generally eat. And my left knee? I could barely put any weight on it. The first thing I did was hobble to the med clinic. They gave me an elastic brace, which I wore religiously. Then I began to hobble around.

I knew enough about my body that I needed crutches, or at the least, a cane. But this is a war zone. Such things draw attention and if I need crutches, then maybe I shouldn't be here. So I perfected the art of the hobble. Bless those who went to chow with me because they walked at my speed. I could only take the stairs one step at a time and distances seemed to take forever. I began to chew great gobs of 800 mg Motrin. A senior civilian came by and asked if I needed medivaced. He's the one I told would have to chain me down to get me out of here.

For nine days I hobbled, then on the tenth my knee began to get better. After roughly four more days, my knee was mostly fine.

Then I got part two of the bronchitis. This one starred a crusty cough that loved to bring up bits of
multi-colored phlegm. What began as the plague, leveled out and became a morning and evening cough. I still can't shake it. Just when I think it's gone, I cough up a few crusty molecules. The boss made me go back to my hooch for eighteen hours, during which, they sanitized my work area. Still, it lingers.

But it's March now and I truly feel like I've survived something.

I still have a crusty cough, but that's bound to eventually go away.

My knee only hurts a bit and that's a dull pain. In fact, I'm almost ready to get back to working out.

And me... what about me? I've lost 20 pounds so far and have a very healthy appreciation of my own mortality. I'm aching to get back to where I can run and do yoga, but I know it's one step at a time. Just as I know that February tried to kill me, I also know that March could be a sleeping assassin. I want to keep it that way. Quiet. Sleeping. Looking the other way. Until, finally, I can sneak away and start doing what I came here to do.

Live well.

So I can live more.

~ ~ ~



To read the rest of my Afghanistan Posts:

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Afghanistan Food Supplement: Mexican Food

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AFGHANISTAN VOL_4-2018. Afghanistan Food Supplement: Mexican Food (Disclaimer: Because of of the safety and sensitivities during this deployment, I will not be divulging my exact location or my mission. Nothing spooky, but because there are fewer American's deployed into the Afghan Theater than in 2013, the threat to life and limb is greater. Please do not ask me questions in relation to those issues I require to keep to myself. What I can tell you is that I am safe behind thousands of pounds of concrete somewhere on Bagram Air Force Base.)


A little bit about the food here in Afghanistan. I’ll probably come back to this topic a few times as interesting things come about; people always want to learn how other people eat. Let me also assure you that I am not suffering in Afghanistan. The food provided by the military here is far more than what most folks in the world are able to eat. Please know that I realize that my comments here are purely first world problems, so take them as such.

The last time I had the luxury of an all-expenses-paid tour to Afghanistan, I was stationed in Kabul and had the pleasure (sic) of eating at the Supreme Dining Facility at ISAF Headquarters. My normal meal was to have soup and salad for lunch and then at night, eat something light like baked chicken breast with a vegetable and a salad. I supplemented the food from the dining facility with my absolute favorite brand of canned salmon, fruit, and various crisps (chips for you dorky Americans). The meals were predominantly fine except for Wednesdays, which were deemed Mexican night.

Admission: I might be a Mexican food snob. I think I’ve earned it from living in Southern California and Arizona. Okay. Fine. I am a Mexican food snob.

When I think of Mexican food, I don’t think of the Chimichanga or Fajitas. The Chimichanga was allegedly accidentally invented in Tucson in 1922 at El Charro Restaurant and Fajitas were cattlemen food in South and West Texas at the turn of the 19th Century. These are Tex-Mex dishes and aren’t real Mexican food. Basically, if it’s served at Taco Bell it’s not what I consider Mexican Food; although if someone wanted to open a Taco Bell in Afghanistan, I’d be the first one in line because it’s scrumptious food in general—just not what I consider Mexican.


What do I consider Mexican food? Because I live just north of the Mexican states of Sonora and am close to Baja, consider that those are my major Mexican culinary influences. So think fish tacos and shrimp burritos. Meats including carne barbacoa, cabeza, and adibado (my favorite). Birrierias that specialize in lamb like the ones in Aguascalientes, Mexico, are incredible. My sister’s unbelievable Red Chili Posole is definitely on the list. Any variation of a grilled meat or fish with pickled vegies on a small soft tortilla makes a great street taco, especially the ones at Lechón Mi Güero in Aguascalientes.

Taco from Lechon Mi Guero
Too often we think of Mexican food as heavy, weighed down after a plate of deep fried chimichanga with fries and refried beans. Although platters of green or red sauced enchiladas can be found at virtually every Mexican family get together, these are paired with grilled meats, limes, lemons, various chilis and both fresh and pickled vegetables. I find most Mexican food to be bright, simple, and terrifically tasting.


Even back in 1991, when I was in Beijing, I managed to find the only Mexican restaurant in the city
(maybe the country). Back then (was it 26 years ago?), China was just beginning to throw off its communist yoke and beginning to embrace the parts of Western Culture that would allow it to eventually become the economic superpower it is today. Back then, I hung out a bar called the Mexican Wave. Owned by Peter, son of the exiled crown prince of Uganda, this was a place for expats to come, socialize, let our hair down, and on Friday nights, eat Mexican food cooked by a Mexican woman who spent her days cleaning for diplomats. I remember the tacos tasted like they were in Mexico, small, using soft tortillas, but bright and light and succulent. I never did ask the provenance of the meat. Probably better that way.

My family at Lechon Mi Guero
This is my long way of getting around to talking about eating Mexican food in Afghanistan. For Supreme Dining Facility, Wednesday nights were Mexican food night. Tacos and enchiladas were the mainstay. They also served grilled chicken, which is a universal taste, dependent on what is added to it. In the case of Supreme, they added a homemade salsa/hot sauce that had a weird funk to it. I remember a tang that I could not place that wasn’t at all pleasant. And they poured this salsa on everything, topped with sour cream, and finished with handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese. All of my NATO friends ate this version of Mexican food with gusto. I might have stuck with it had the sauce not had that funk. I could have maybe toughed it out had one night's taste resulted into seventy-three visits to the bathroom.

So Mexican nights became Pizza Nights. We were fortunate to have the Italian PX called Ciano’s on ISAF which imported all of their ingredients from Italy and cooked the best real Italian pizzas. My favorite was their Gorgonzola pizza. I’d order a large, eat about three huge pieces, then take it to the office and leave it for the rest of the folks. Mexican night soon became Weston Is Bringing Pizza Night, because that’s how I rolled. (Except for that time we were traveling and had Cianos in Herat -  I could have moved into the bathroom the amount of time I spent in there. I know. It's the water.) 

Currently, there's a dedicated Mexican night at a nearby dining facility that I can go to. But I've heard that their Mexican lasagna, tacos, and enchiladas were questionable. I've heard the sauce has a funk to it. And alas, there's no Cianos. So, I guess I'll have to wave Mexican nights and let the rest of the folks fake the funk.

Until then, I'll eat the other things on offer. But one thing I will do as a nod to my beloved Mexican food is add metric tons of jalapenos to whatever food I am eating. God bless the folks at the dining facility. They don’t scrimp on fresh jalapenos. I add them to my tuna melts, to my salads, to my spaghetti, and to my soups. I add them to about everything.

I guess until I get back to my corner of the world that’s the closest I will get to Mexican food. Until then, I will pine for a Filliberto’s shrimp burrito, an adibado taco with lemon, my sister's red chili posole, and pork tacos with my family at Lechón Mi Güero.

Those are memories I can culinarily embrace.


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To read the rest of my Afghanistan Posts:

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Why I Want to Go to War

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AFGHANISTAN VOL_3-2018. Why I Want to Go to War (Disclaimer: Because of of the safety and sensitivities during this deployment, I will not be divulging my exact location or my mission. Nothing spooky, but because there are fewer American's deployed into the Afghan Theater than in 2013, the threat to life and limb is greater. Please do not ask me questions in relation to those issues I require to keep to myself. What I can tell you is that I am safe behind thousands of pounds of concrete somewhere on Bagram Air Force Base.)

I’ve been asked many times why I’m in the military. I have several pat reasons I can monotone deliver with a thousand mile stare that will satisfy most folks:

Patriotism.

The flag.

Founding Fathers.

Apple pie.

Grandma.

‘Murica.

Words that makes people nod, experience brilliant red, white, and blue rainbows, and become filled with warm fuzzy jingoistic electric feelings of goodness and belonging. Those reasons are all appropriate, I suppose, but they don’t get to the soul of my belief system.

Who I am can’t ever be represented by an NRA sticker.

Nor can it be codified by a mantra shouted at a rally.

Nor is it represented by your favorite stove-piped news channel.

Trying to define why I do what I do is like attempting to quantify the feeling one has when petting a dog or climbing to the top of a hill and looking out at the far horizon.

In order for you to completely understand my belief system you’d have to extract and study it. The problem is, once extracted, what remains would dissolve into a noxious bowl of primordial dross, destined to eventually swirl down the drain into irrelevancy. So, you’ll have to take my few words on the subject as the Gospel According to Weston.

Bottom line is that I am a humanist. I spent the entire introduction of my military story and essay collection FUBAR explaining what that means to me, but for you ne’re-do-wells, here’s the CLIFF NOTE version for those of you who don't have it.

  • I believe in the idea of good and evil;
  • I believe in the little guy, those who can’t protect themselves. This is not only exemplified by me helping a person, but it extends to societies helping those who can’t help themselves- what the French once called Noblesse Oblige;
  • I believe in my brothers and sisters in arms and will do whatever I can to protect them. I fight for them and my family. I rarely find myself fighting for politics.
  • I believe that as human beings we have an obligation to do what we can to protect every other human being and the planet where we exist.

I can see some of you shaking your heads. You either think I’m a simpleton or a romantic. If it makes it easier to swallow, call me a simple romantic. I’m fine with that. It’s just who I am. I can also see you equivocating and pointing out that some of my beliefs might contradict each other. To that I ask what doesn’t contradict? I didn’t pretend to be simple, that was a label given to me. Actually, I am very complicated.

Enough of the background. You want to know why I’m in Afghanistan. Why is a successful author intentionally knee deep in hand grenade pins instead of knee deep in wine corks in America?

I blame it on my grandfather.

I blame it on my mother.

Most of all, I blame it on my father who introduced me to Shakespeare. Never has there been someone more attuned to what it means to love one’s fellow man than Shakespeare, even when his characters pretended to be women (because at the end of the day, we are all human). And never has he expressed it so well, as in the St. Crispin’s Day speech spoken by King Henry V on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, where the English were massively outnumbered and held little hope for victory. The gist of the speech is that all those who weren’t in the battle will have wished they were a part of the battle, because the outcome was going to be so magnificent.Let's take a moment so that you may listen to it. The speech is magnificent. Some of you might remember a certain chapter in Grunt Traitor where my hero promises his team that he won't so the St. Crispin's day speech, but then ends up doing it anyway.

The irony of it all, I suppose, was that it wasn’t originally Shakespeare who introduced me to the St. Crispin’s Day speech, but rather it was Danny Devito in Renaissance Man. Ever see the movie? It’s about a down on his luck advertisement exec who finds himself training Army privates who have learning disabilities. The scene where actor Lillo Brancato Jr. recites part of the speech while standing in the rain at the bivouac site while a drill sergeant played by Gregory Hines watches on is classic. I actually love that movie. In fact, if you look at my beliefs, they are central to the plot, with Devito’s character learning to embrace them as a placeholder for ourselves.

But not everyone appreciates those beliefs. Even more don’t even like the military. They don’t understand what we stand for and think of us as nothing more than jingoistic arm pumpers ready to kill indiscriminately for the pure joy of it. Although, like in any segment of society, there are those who take matters to extreme, the vast majority of the military doesn’t ascribe to such nonsense. I’ve never been around a band more professional than the military. Period.

That didn’t keep Pico Rivera City Councilman and high school history teacher Gregory Salcido from recently commenting on those who would join the military. His comments went viral, not for their efficacy, but for their idiocy. When confronted by the fact that the reason one of his students wore a Marine Corps shirt was because of his intent to join, Mr. Salcido, who’d also been elected as mayor, verbally whiplashed the young man. The boy wore his shirt out of pride for his uncles and father who’d served in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

"You’re freakin' stupid Uncle Louie or whatever,” Salcido began. “They're dumb shits. They're not high-level bankers. They're not academic people. They're not intellectual people. They're the freaking lowest of our low."

It’s clear that Mr. Salcido does not ascribe to my beliefs. He feels that the opportunity the military provides to young men and women through their subsidized college and vocational programs isn’t worthwhile. He also doesn’t understand what it truly means to serve, treating his election as if it was something to be won rather than something to be earned. Finally, he doesn’t understand the fellowship engendered by those who decide to serve in environments hostile in order to help those less fortunate remain safe in their beds is a bond that cannot be bought or sold. And he will never understand because he is an opportunist rather than a patriot.

So to Mr. Salcido, I quote from William Shakespeare, That he which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart; his passport shall be made, And crowns for convoy put into his purse. We would not die in that man's company, nor would we want to.

That is not to say that someone cannot disagree. Hold your anti-war signs high. Shout for all wars to end. Make it be heard to the heavens that we shouldn’t be in Afghanistan or Iraq or Korea. You’re voices are your weapons and I respect your fight. My nation was founded on dissent and it should always be held in high esteem. There is no one who despises war more than those who live it. But until you win your war, we have to fight ours. Still, we root for you. I root for you.

To my fellow warriors, those with whom I am currently serving, I say:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen (at home) now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day. 

Danny Devito’s character understood this, as well did his wards.

I understand this, and revel in the words, knowing that my manhood is not held cheaply.
My friends and family understand this, although they might not like it, they respect me for my feelings.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

Why do I do what I do?

I suppose I do it for my brothers.

What about you?

Why do you do what you do and why do you do it?


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To read the rest of my Afghanistan Posts: