End of the World

[originally published on r/NoSleep]

Last night, I dreamed that the world ended.

Astronomers discovered an asteroid during a routine sweep of the sky, just a tiny little dot. They found objects like that all of the time and there was never any problem, but they made their observations just to be sure. Just to be certain that things were fine.

This time, things were not fine.

They said they were, at first. They said that asteroid 2018 XE17 was going to do a close fly-by, that it would be going right through our stellar neighborhood. They said it might even pass closer than the moon. There was a brief flurry of excitement, and then everyone basically forgot about it.

But the astronomers took a second look, and what they saw concerned them.

It was larger than they had believed, and more dangerous. This was no tiny space rock, but an enormous slab, its size measured in hundreds of kilometers rather than meters. They released a new statement warning that its close passage could have concerning effects, detrimental to our planet.

People scoffed. We had never been endangered by an asteroid before. We certainly weren’t going to be now. We couldn’t even see it, couldn’t observe it in any way. How could they possibly think they could predict its path from so far away? The astronomers had been wrong the first time that they had looked at 2018 XE17, so what made us think that they were right this time? They were doomsayers, worst-case scenario portrayers. We would be fine.

And so we went about our lives, while the astronomers ran more tests, refining their measurements and becoming ever more certain. They updated us shortly thereafter, the news broadcasting their dark message. 2018 XE17 was not going to fly by, giving us a near miss. It was going to hit us. And its impact would be lethal.

Still, we laughed. We laughed at the men and women who could launch a spacecraft 35 million miles and land exactly on their target nine months later. They couldn’t possibly be right. Total extinction? Of the entire planet? Maybe, maybe there would be some damage. But nothing we couldn’t recover from. Nothing we couldn’t fix.

And every day, 2018 XE17 grew larger, drawing closer.

The astronomers stuck to their guns. They told us that there was no question, no chance of error. We had mere weeks to go.

We began to worry. Around the world, people started to lash out in various ways. Riots, fires, vandalism became common. The violence was often sudden and unpredictable, people raging against a threat they could not reach or even truly understand.

Prayer skyrocketed. Many who had never before had faith found it, grasping at straws. Churches, synagogues and mosques were packed. The airwaves were full of holy men preaching salvation, either by a miracle in this life or by a blessing in the next.

And even then, most of us were still in denial. As the days ticked down, we continued to go about our lives as we always had. We woke up to our alarms, brushed our teeth and went to our jobs as if any of it mattered. Because what else could we do? The routine gave us strength, normalcy. It told us an idiot’s lie, that everything would be all right. And knowing it to be false, we still embraced it, wishing it were true.

On the final day, 2018 XE17 was close enough to be seen by amateur telescopes. We still thought that somehow, maybe, they were wrong, that it would miss us. It would skim by somehow, or maybe hit the moon. That impact would still doubtless be devastating, life-altering, but we would survive. Or that if it did hit as they said it would, maybe its impact would not be as devastating. We would live on. Damaged, crippled even, but not dead. Not that final erasure, not us.

We felt it just before it hit, somehow. We looked to the skies as it came shrieking in on its final approach, a tremendous fireball thundering across the heavens, a sun screaming to earth. In an instant, we were obliterated, the planet itself torn asunder, broken pieces shattered to the skies to drift, lost, forever.

The dream ended in the infinite blackness of space, and I woke up gasping for life.

This morning, I received a call from my doctor. She had discovered a small mass during my routine checkup, just a tiny little dot. She assured me that she found growths like that all of the time and there was never any problem, but she wanted to conduct some follow-up tests just to be sure. Just to be certain that things were fine.

June 3: The State of the States

So, I ended the last email on a bit of a cliffhanger. Did I go to Germany? Did I refuse, and get fired? Where in the world am I, and am I having as much larcenous fun as Carmen Sandiego? To resolve these questions in order: no, no, Georgia and probably not, as she looked like someone who really knew how to live life to the fullest. I’m doing fairly well myself, but I think that the only law I’ve broken so far involved shipping the chemicals for my gas mask home in my luggage, which I think I wasn’t supposed to do since they might explode. That might only be a rule, though, and anyway they didn’t explode, so it all worked out.

The potential Germany trip actually got resolved later the same day as the email. I got an email from my company confirming what Atreyu, my coworker, had told me, and after a brief exchange in which I made sure I was understanding them correctly, sent them a letter stating that their plan to ship me off to a different continent on six days notice was, in a word, unacceptable—and that, in six more words, I would not be doing it. I never got a response to this email, but when Atreyu got home eight hours later, he mentioned that they’d called him to let him know that I wouldn’t have to go to Germany after all. I was a bit miffed at the fact that they hadn’t seen fit to actually mention it to me, but after a bit of reflection concluded that that was a battle entirely not worth fighting, and let it go. I actually didn’t hear anything from my company at all on any topic until two days later, when I received an email asking me to pass a message on to Atreyu. Perhaps there’s a new company policy to never talk directly to the person you’re attempting to exchange information with. I’ll have to figure out who to ask about this, so I can ask someone else to ask them for me.

Anyway, the reason that I didn’t send out another email immediately was that it seemed silly to send out one announcing that everything was now hunky-dory when, judging by historical precedent, I was actually just about to enter the most problematic leg of the journey: the transportation portion. I figured that I’d give it a week, and write to you once I’d avoided all of the pitfalls—or fallen into them, whichever. I actually have no clear preference on transportation going right or wrong. If it’s the former, I get where I’m going on schedule and can carry on with plans. If it’s the latter, I get to complain endlessly and hypothesize about the possible environmental and genetic reasons for others’ shortcomings. It’s pretty much a win-win situation, really.

So, now that everything’s resolved, here’s how it played out. I successfully made it to the Kuwaiti airport, after convincing our contact that I really did have to be there at 6:30 AM on Wednesday, and that therefore sending someone to pick the car up Wednesday night was not going to work. I told him that he was welcome to let me drive myself and leave the car in valet parking, so he could get it at his leisure, and his expense. He then decided it would be better to send someone to get me at 6 AM after all. I spent the ride to the airport wondering about the wisdom of giving my car and apartment keys to someone who showed up outside my door with no credentials and no real shared language—but as I got to the airport, I suppose it was the right choice.

I detoured through Boston to get my body armor, which I had left there for safe-keeping. Theoretically, I was meant to take it to Kuwait, but it seemed really heavy, and the odds of me getting shot at seemed low, so I ditched it in the States before I left. As my checked luggage returning from Kuwait was 66 pounds even without the 50 pounds of body armor, I think this was an excellent call. It was much more likely to cause an injury than it was to prevent one, as I demonstrated by bruising myself with the bag while carrying it around the airport.

This was all the easy part, though. It was the final day that had the most potential for failure. I carefully designed the itinerary in keeping with my theory that if you set things up so that any minor mishap will cause a cascading failure of the entire system, everything will go off without a hitch just to be contrary. The very last day before I got home looked like this: land at the Atlanta airport at midnight, collect the pre-ordered rental car, drive the two hours to Columbus, check in, grab possibly as many as three hours of sleep before mustering at 5:30 AM, go through the redeployment process, make it back to Atlanta for my 4:40 PM flight out, catch a transfer through St. Louis that was scheduled to leave exactly thirty-five minutes after my Atlanta flight arrived, and be home in Richmond in time for dinner.

And—like a tightrope walker performing without a net—I’d be doing all this without a cell phone, so that if things went wrong, I wouldn’t even be able to easily contact people to sort it out. And like a tightrope walker performing blindfolded on a line strung by someone not known for their competence or commitment to excellence, I didn’t actually have any real information on how long the check-in process was going to take. Rumor had it taking anywhere from two hours to sixteen, but all that the official site would say was that it was a “one-day” process. I figured that as eight hours was a standard workday, that was a safe bet. Also, the 4:40 flight out was the latest one there was that would get me back to Richmond, which sort of removed the option of booking a later flight to be on the safe side.

My biggest fear was that the airlines would lose the items I had to turn back in. Even if they put them on the next flight out, they weren’t going to be in Atlanta by 5:30 AM, much less in Columbus, which would make the entire Georgia trip a waste of my time. This, fortunately, did not happen—to me. It did happen to two of the other guys who were redeploying that day, though. They had to drive back out to the airport to get official forms stating that the airport had lost the bags, and were looking for them, and then hope that when the bags showed up, the guy checking off their stuff didn’t overlook anything and bill them for missing items. I hadn’t trusted them not to try to pull a fast one on me and use a different checklist on the way out, so I’d saved the copy I’d gotten on receipt of the stuff. I noticed that although it had all of the same items on it, the final price—what I would owe if I lost everything—was almost $300 higher. Who knew body armor appreciated so quickly? It’s beating my stocks for returns so far this year.

My second concern was that the rental agency would be out of cars, or closed, or I would be in some other way unable to obtain a vehicle. This also did not happen, but it was close. When I showed up to get my compact car, the salesman told me, “Oh, we’re all out of small cars, so we’re giving you a free upgrade to a Toyota Tundra.” A Tundra, if you’re not aware, is a four-door pickup with a full backseat and a bed big enough to store the car I’d reserved. It’s also a major gas hog. I asked the agent exactly what sort of mileage it got, and he claimed not to know. I asked him if 15 miles to the gallon sounded about right, and he allowed that it did.

“So your free upgrade,” I concluded, “is going to cost me about $50 in gas.”

He looked unhappy. “How about if you bring it back with a half-tank, instead of full?”

I was happy again, and quickly restored his happiness by leaving, so I feel that solution worked out well for everybody. Interestingly, it worked out well for three random soldiers who were redeploying with me that day, too. The official way to get to and from the Atlanta airport is by the Groome Transportation van, at $36 each way. When I heard that those three were heading up that way, I looked at my ridiculously oversized vehicle and offered to give them a lift. We piled all the bags in the bed, everyone stretched out in the cab, and I had conversation for the ride back. Also, one of them paid for gas, so instead of each of us paying $72 for the round-trip, I paid $33 for the rental, one of them paid $20 for gas, and the other two got off scot-free. Everyone won, except for Groome, which serves them right for their abysmal organization on my last trip out there.

As a side note, the army base was the site of an interesting new game called “Speed Limits: Advanced Version.” This was especially challenging since I was fresh back from a place where speed limits were largely optional entirely. These signs often had four or five lines of text. “SPEED LIMIT 45 TRUCKS 25.” “SPEED LIMIT 15 WHEN FLASHING OR JOGGERS ARE PRESENT.” “SPEED LIMIT 20 BETWEEN 0700 AND 0800 MONDAY THROUGH FRIDAY, AND 0900 TO 1100 ON SATURDAY.” “OKAY YOU CAN GO 55 AGAIN NOW, HA HA JUST KIDDING, SIMON DIDN’T SAY.” These all had the effect of making me slow down, but that was just so I’d have enough time to read all of the text. I swear some of these signs had tables of contents and appendices.

Anyway, once I escaped from the base at a speed not greater than 42 mph, but not less than 38, except for 11:17 AM—”free driving”—I headed back to Atlanta with the army guys, who had earlier flights than I did. This meant that I ended up at the airport several hours earlier than I’d intended, so I went on standby for an earlier flight. While the attendant was printing my standby ticket, I made her confirm about eight times that if I didn’t make the standby flight, I’d be able to get my original ticket back. Eventually, she said, “It won’t affect it, but there is basically no reason why you wouldn’t be able to get on this earlier flight.”

Unless, of course, another plane suffered complete mechanical breakdown and the airline suddenly had to figure out how to get a hundred people crammed in on other flights. I was napping at the gate when I suddenly saw a herd of people descending on the desk. I cut to the front of the line and, harassing the clearly overworked woman behind the counter, asked if this meant I wouldn’t be making this flight with my standby ticket. She was surprised into a short laugh, which I took to mean, “Please come back when the line has died down so that we can put you back on your original flight.”

When I saw that the line was down to one person, I wandered back up to wait, and was privy to a truly astonishing exchange. The airline representative was attempting to book this woman on a flight to St. Louis, which the passenger was—for reasons that I could not fathom—refusing. First, she was offered a connection through Chicago, which she turned down, saying she needed to get straight to St. Louis. Then a direct flight on a competing airline was offered, which she also refused, on the grounds that it arrived too late.

“Ma’am, these are what I can do for you. I have no other seats on any other flight to St. Louis.”

“Well, they’re no good! You’re not giving me any options.”

“I am giving you all the options there are. You just don’t like them.”

This went on for several minutes, and eventually involved a second representative independently verifying the information before the woman finally accepted the transfer ticket. I thought about offering her my seat if they could find a different path for me to get home, but I decided that I didn’t want to encourage her apparent belief that by being stubborn enough, she could warp reality to her will. She seemed to believe that if she just demanded with enough insistence, a seat would appear. Interestingly, there ended up being an empty seat next to me on my flight to St. Louis, so maybe she was right after all, and if she’d just stuck with it for long enough, she’d’ve been successful. Of course, it’s equally likely that the empty water bottle sitting in the seat that I took to be trash had actually bought its own airline ticket. I decided not to give it to the attendants to throw away, just to be on the safe side.

Our plane was late getting to St. Louis, of course, and I was just starting to get stressed about catching my connecting flight when they announced the gates for connections, ending with, “C22 for Richmond, where you’ll have the same flight crew, just on a different plane.” While I’m sure the airline would have happily stranded me in another city, I figured they probably wouldn’t be going anywhere without the pilot, so I strolled to the gate and watched the other passengers getting antsy as they wondered why we weren’t boarding yet. I thought about alleviating their concerns, but decided to smirk at them instead. I was rewarded for this by being seated in front of a goblin-child who kicked my seat all the way back to Richmond, which I deserved.

I’m now back, and my job status has gone from “we promise you’ll have a job, but don’t know what it’ll be” to actual employment, complete with offer letter and new salary and everything. Things are basically as I left them, and three people have already remarked to me that it’s just like I never left—which I’m not entirely convinced is a good thing, as the comments seemed to have undertones of “I’d just started to forget how annoying you can actually be.” I take this as a compliment to my needling skills, of course, but I’m aware that it might not really have been meant as one.

I feel I should have some sort of a pithy summary here about what I’ve seen and done and learned, but if I tried, it would probably end in puns. I figure, though, that any trip on which I was on excited to embark, during which I enjoyed myself, and from which I was happy to be home, was a trip well made. There’s not a lot else to ask from an adventure.

May 21: Kuwait-Breaking News

I feel like talking. Unfortunately, it’s too late for anyone in the States to be awake, and too early for the folks in Kuwait to be up, so I’m writing instead. That means that this letter is likely to be the equivalent of one of those rambling voicemails you sometimes get, often left on your phone at 3 AM by someone presumably in much the situation I am now. Maybe you don’t get these voicemails. Maybe your friends aren’t into that sort of thing. Most of your friends, I should say. Consider yourselves lucky that I don’t have a phone that can dial the States right now.

A number of people have expressed dismay that I’m coming home, as they’ve been enjoying the tales of my adventures, mis- and otherwise. I’d planned to write something nice about how I appreciated the compliments, but that I couldn’t really continue writing after I got back home, as fish-back-in-water comedies are not terribly successful variants. As it turns out, however, I will not be making this comment, previous sentence notwithstanding. Instead, I shall be vigorously shaking my fist at all who remarked anything along these lines, as thanks to the warping influence of your wishes on reality, we’ve reached yet another new twist.

I’m like that one guy left alive at the end of a horror movie. The monster’s been chasing me for days now. At various times, it’s been stabbed, shot, knocked unconscious, drowned and set on fire, and every time it’s gotten back up. You’d think I’d have caught on! You’d think I’d know better by now. But this time! This time, I got it with a chainsaw! Its legs are half a room away from its torso! And so, relaxing my guard, I begin to amble out of the room, thoughts on the future—only to feel a slippery, bloody hand close around my ankle in an iron grip.

Let me step back from the realm of metaphor and give you a slightly more detailed, if less colorful, explanation. As was predicted, the work visa proved impossible to get in under a month, and so it was determined that the twenty-seventh would be my last day of work in Kuwait. My company instructed me to make arrangements to turn in my vehicle and apartment on the twenty-eighth. Upon reading this direction, I guffawed so loudly that I startled a bird from my balcony. I was supposed to make plans to give up my housing and transportation before plane tickets had been obtained? Sure, why not? I can’t see how that could possibly work out badly.

So as you can see, my cynicism was fully intact. Despite this, they caught me again. Yesterday, my company gave me the instruction to buy my own ticket home. They gave me a price cap, and promised to reimburse me in a timely fashion. Hardly an ideal situation, but fine; I can afford to front the cash for my ticket, and this way, I’m able to pick my own itinerary home. And so I fell for it again, because apparently this was a joke. I caught Atreyu before he left for work today to ask him if he knew how long we’d need to hang out in Georgia to check back in, and he told me that he’d gotten a call last night around midnight. “Cancel your ticket!” he was told. “You guys are going to Germany for two months!”

Now, look. I’m a fairly reasonable guy, and I’m relatively laid-back. I’ve dealt with last-minute changes with this contract since well before I got here. I was first informed of it while out of town for Halloween, told that I had a day to decide and less than two weeks to leave, and had to change my vacation plans to accommodate that imaginary deadline. I was told, at various other times, to cancel my Thanksgiving and Christmas plans as well. The job itself, once I finally got here, ended up being nothing like the contract I had signed, and I rolled with that, too. I dealt with my company failing to pay my travel expenses for several months. I worked ten-hour days, seven days a week, for almost a month, because it was asked of me. I can’t say I did it without complaining, but I don’t do anything without complaining, including things I want to do. My point is, I think I’ve established that I’m a team player here.

That said: seven days notice for a two-month trip is not good enough. I’ve made plans to go camping, and to see friends in Ohio, and to join in ComedySportz’s Summer Challenge. Those can all be canceled, of course, but it’s irritating. I’ve bought tickets to events, which cannot be canceled. That’s more than irritating. That’s lost money. I’ve restarted my car insurance and my phone. I’ve kicked my tenants out of my house. And I did all of this in the last week—nearly all; the tenants got more notice than that—having put it off as long as possible; any longer, and I wouldn’t have these things when I was ostensibly getting home, one week from now. And you’ll notice that my company has not yet actually informed me of this decision! They’ve only told Atreyu. I generally don’t see the guy on my day off, which means that if they’re hoping for this to reach me through the trickle-down method, I wasn’t likely to hear about it until tomorrow, six days before coming home. You could probably have done that math yourself, but I thought I’d stress the point.

It’s possible that I’ve received bad information. Atreyu did answer the call at midnight, after all, and may have misunderstood. Perhaps my company is only intending to jerk him around like this—which is unfortunate, of course, but only for him, and not for me. There’s always the possibility that I’ve gotten worked up over nothing here. I intend to ask them about this as soon as I can find someone awake over there. Assuming that my information is correct, I have a few other questions, too—questions like why they actually need me in Germany; why they feel they can send me there when the contract quite clearly states “Kuwait,” without so much as running this plan by me first; and how they feel about my new salary requirements when the current contract runs out on June eighth, which, let me tell you, will be quite high if I’m to be in Germany.

I suspect that we can work this out like reasonable people. However, the key word there is “people.” I have no intention of being the only reasonable one in this discussion. And I’m quite certain that we can work it out as unreasonable people, but I think it would be ever so much nicer if we didn’t have to go down that path.

May 4: Kuwait Lifting

There’s not a lot to report since my last letter. Please note that this will not stop me from writing at great length! It only means that the actual content may be hard to spot. Please further note that although these two sentences certainly imply that there will be at least some content in this letter, they do not outright say it; this may be worth remembering when you reach the end and discover that you have learned nothing other than that I occasionally write to entertain myself.

This is no guarantee of quality, as earlier I was entertaining myself by bouncing a screwdriver off of a can of V8 in an effort to discover at exactly what height the falling screwdriver would puncture the can, likely covering everything on my desk in a fine spray of red mist. Sadly, I grew thirsty before learning the answer to this, and instead contented myself with poking the empty can with the screwdriver until it was full of holes, after which I used it to cast interesting light patterns on my desk. Now I have the lyrics to “Psycho Killer” stuck in my head. Je me lance, vers la gloire!

As you may have gathered, it’s not terribly busy around here this morning. Most of the folks working over here only get one day off, but those days are staggered across Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That means that all three of these days tend to be sort of quiet, and since everyone I’d be working with in Germany and the rest of Europe has Saturday and Sunday off, those two are especially low-key. This is made worse by the fact that I’ve contracted a serious case of Short Timers’ Syndrome, which manifests as the sure knowledge that no matter what I do, I will be neither praised nor punished in the little time remaining at this job. I’ve got twenty days left here. Counting what remains of today, that’s 142 hours of work left.

You may have spotted that today is the fourth of May, and that 5 + 20 does not yield 38, even counting Wednkends. June eighth is, of course, the day the contract was meant to end. After much hemming and hawing, it was eventually decided on as the date to which they intended to have us stay here. Unfortunately, the plans of mice and men all gang agly, as they say, when the aforementioned mice and men fail to read their own rules and regulations.

It turns out that even with an Exception to Policy, the longest the Army was willing to extend our access to the base was thirty days past the end of the original visa. Allowing people to work for 120 days on a visa which explicitly forbids working seems more than fair to me, honestly. Unfortunately, it stops us cold on May twenty-seventh, eleven days before the end of the contract. I’m fairly certain that this means I’ll be heading out on the twenty-eighth, although my company seems to believe—in the face of all evidence—that it will somehow be possible to get a work visa in less than a month. This is the same visa which, back in January, wasn’t going to be worth the time and expense of getting for a mere year-long contract. Now, for eleven days, we’re suddenly supposed to make it happen. I’ve broached the idea to Bastian, our contact with the Kuwaiti sponsor, and he’s been polite enough to wait until I hang up the phone to laugh out loud, but I can hear the chuckle in his voice.

Speaking of work-related absurdities, my company has, for some reason, chosen to mark Friday as my day off on my timesheet. I wouldn’t really care, except that this prevents me from writing in my hours worked on Fridays. Instead, what I’ve been doing is writing a 0 on Wednesdays, then going back and changing it to the hours I actually worked on Friday. This causes the timesheet to ask me why I made a correction, and I use this space to explain that if the accounting department could please update my timesheet, I’d be ever so grateful. I quickly realized that no one was actually reading this, though, and so my explanations went from professional and succinct to flowery and verbose, and have now moved on into utter ridiculousness. My entry for last week read:

The seasons pass by
My timesheet remains unchanged
I don’t work Wednesdays.

I then added “It’s a haiku!” at the end, in case this was unclear to the imaginary reader, although I imagine he’d gotten that. I suppose I should probably bring this problem up with an actual person, but I figure that as long as I’m including notes explaining the issue, I’m still making sure that the timesheet is correct to the best of my knowledge and ability. That’s all that the signature block asks of me, after all. And it’s really hardly worth making an issue of now, when I’ll likely just have to have it changed again in less than a month.

Interestingly, I don’t yet know what I’ll be doing for my company when I come back home, nor how much money I’ll be doing it for. You’d think that these might be the sort of things I’d like to know about, but honestly, I’m more concerned about finding a good deal on a pool table. It turns out that there’s quite a lot to consider. Pool tables are hideously expensive to ship, as full-sized ones weigh around a thousand pounds, and just as hideously expensive to have installed, due to all of the careful balancing and leveling that has to be done. Because of these and other hidden costs, any advertised price on a pool table is extremely suspect, and must be examined with great care.

My job, on the other hand, is a fairly straightforward deal. I’ve been working with these folks for six years now. No one’s out to gouge anyone on this. At some point, I’ll sit down with the bosses, and they’ll tell me that they’d like me to take over the outgoing system administrator’s job. I’ll ask them what they intend to pay me for this, and they’ll ask me what I think I’m worth. I’ll suggest that they pay me the same thing they were paying me in Kuwait, and they’ll explain how they can’t really do that, situations are different, no hazard pay, contracts expiring, everyone in the poorhouse, all wearing rags and working out of cardboard boxes while stealing wireless from a nearby Starbucks, so how about they pay me what I was earning before as a programmer?

I’ll counter with the fact that I’ve got a house and a dog to take care of, and with a new pool table on the way I just can’t accept that sort of salary cut, and so on. I’m thinking about just presenting them with a script of their side of the conversation before we begin. That way we can all focus more on the dramatic presentation of the lines and really make it a good performance. The end result will be that I’ll make less than I’m making now—unfortunate, but nowhere in the States is going to pay me what I was making here, even leaving out the free car, apartment, food and gas, not to mention the tax-free status—but more than I was making before I left in January. It’s predictable, but then again, I don’t really want M. Night Shyamalan writing my salary negotiations.

People have been asking me if I’m looking forward to being home again, and I don’t quite know what to say. It’s in my future, so in that sense, I’m clearly looking forward to it. I have plans that I intend to undertake upon arriving, so there’s that, as well. But I haven’t missed it, really. If I weren’t heading home in a month, I’d have plans here for the same time frame. I’m happy being where I am. When I go somewhere else, I’ll be happy being there, too. It’s just the way I operate. I suppose it’s easy to be contented when your situation is as consistently fantastic as mine is—but then again, perhaps it’s easy to have a consistently fantastic situation if you’re always contented.

I recognize that any truism created by reflecting the first half of the sentence to form the second is suspect, and that borrowing formulations from the Mad Tea Party is entertaining, but not necessarily useful. After all, “I like what I do” is not necessarily the same as “I do what I like.”

Although, like the Dormouse, it most certainly is the same for me!

April 20: Blame it on Bahrain

I’ve been in Kuwait for nearly ninety days now, which means that my tourist visa is about to expire. This, in turn, means that it’s time to enact the ridiculous plan wherein I run out of the country, tag a wall, yell “Base!”, and run back in, grabbing a new visa on the way. I leave tomorrow for Bahrain, where the aforementioned wall is located, and should have just enough time to see the country out of airport and car windows before it’s time to come back.

This is, of course, assuming that things go according to plan. I haven’t had great luck with plane tickets this trip, though, and the events leading up to this trip aren’t filling me with confidence. Our company’s contact in charge of setting up this trip, Bastian, called me today to let me know that I was booked on a plane tomorrow at 3 PM. Now, there’s technically no reason why I’d really need more than twenty-four hours’ notice. I knew it had to be sometime in the next few days, since my visa’s just about up. Still, it might have been nice to have some warning.

He told me that he’d bring the ticket to me sometime after 3:00 today. It’s currently 9 PM, which admittedly is undeniably after 3. It’s just that a quarter day after 3 is rather longer than I was expecting. I could call him to find out where he is, and I suppose I will if he hasn’t shown up in the next hour, but for now I’m entertaining myself by speculating on how they expect me to get to Bahrain without a plane ticket.

Bastian’s original plan was to have me leave on the twenty-sixth and come back on the twenty-seventh. I’m not sure why he wanted to do this on the exact last day, but even after I explained that I was likely leaving in June, the earliest I could get him to agree to arrange the flight was the twentieth. At the time, I had assumed that this was because he didn’t want to have to set up a last minute flight, but now I’ve sort of gathered that he just waited until today to set the flight up anyway, so I don’t know why he was so insistent on putting it off.

Thanks to the delay, I may end up getting another paid vacation out of this. I’m leaving for Bahrain on the twenty-first, and I’ll be back on the twenty-second. I have the twenty-third off, which means the first day I’ll be back at work is the twenty-fourth. The twenty-seventh is the last day I’ll be allowed on base with my current badge. And we’ve just learned that under US Army rules, when you renew your tourist visa, you’re not allowed to use it to work anymore. They figure that if you’re here working for more than ninety days, you really ought to get a work visa. Sounds fairly reasonable to me; I believe I said something similar when I first found out that we’d be working illegally, too. Anyway, it turns out that if you want to get a new badge on a renewed visa, you need an Exception to Policy form signed, countersigned, and certified. This takes between forty-eight hours and two weeks. The badge office opens at 1 PM and, as mentioned, I can’t get there until the twenty-fourth. That means that at the earliest, my paperwork will get approved one hour before I leave work on the penultimate day of my badge. Planning on everything going perfectly is not generally a recipe for success, but there’s not a lot else I can do at this point.

I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that months ago, I correctly called the badge renewal as a point where things would go horribly wrong. In fairness, I also named absolutely everything else I could think of as an opportunity for things to go horribly wrong, so my prediction is perhaps less impressive than it might have been. On the other hand, I’ve been right about 85% of the time, and the 15% where I’ve been wrong includes the bits where things went wrong in surprising and unexpected ways.

Assuming that I actually receive a plane ticket at some point tonight, though, I don’t anticipate any problems with the Bahrain trip itself. This is because I’m heading to that country with none of their currency, to a hotel I don’t currently know the name of, on an unknown flight number and airline, having been given only round numbers for when to get to airports I’ve never been to before, with no knowledge of traffic conditions, parking situation, or anything like that. It’s just too obvious a sticking place. I expect everything to go swimmingly, just because it shouldn’t. I’m a great believer in the perversity of the universe, and in this sort of situation, two wrongs most certainly make a right.

April 13: Kuwait and See

I have occasionally been accused of not telling people things, sometimes things which these people feel are of great import, and are the sorts of things that I really should have shared without extensive prompting. This is, on the whole, an entirely fair accusation. I routinely fail to tell people things. If something is certain to happen, I’ll happily tell folks about it—but if it’s still up in the air, I tend to wait for it to gather more reality before I start disseminating information. I hate having the unconversations that result when things change after I’ve already told people about them.

An unconversation is any exchange where the main purpose is to retract information. It may not be the most accurate term, but it is fun to say. This balances the fact that unconversations are always somewhat awkward. People begin with what they feel is a safe conversation opener, like “So, I hear you’re coming back in June!”, and I have to shoot them down. A lot of the time, I can’t even relate something more reliable to replace the erroneous information, so I know I’m just prepping for more unconversations in my future.

I have a story about a secretary and a pen, which I like to tell to explain my reluctance to discuss future plans. In its short form, it goes like this: I came to work one day shortly after my company had hired a new secretary, and saw her writing on her desktop day planner. I asked what she was doing, and she told me that she was writing in the boss’s travel plans.

“In pen?” I asked, incredulous.

She told me that they’d already bought the tickets, and it was absolutely certain. I shook my head and walked on. A couple of days later, entering work, I saw her writing on the planner again, and noted some large scratched-out areas. Again, I asked what she was writing. In response, she simply waved her pencil at me.

The long form looks about the same, actually, only with more dialogue. It’s not a lot longer by word count, but when you write it out, it takes up an annoying amount of space. There is a shorter version of the story, too, but it relies on people already being familiar with the longer version. When those who’ve already heard this tale ask me about upcoming plans, I simply say “In PEN?”, and they get the message. They then tend to ignore the message and press me for information anyway, which I assume is because they like to force me into future unconversations.

You may have noticed the example earlier where I mentioned coming back in June. This is because the current plan is, indeed, to kick us out when the contract expires on June eighth, due to a lack of funding for renewal. The plan seemed to be fairly solid, so I told a few people—and within hours, received notification that this was being “re-examined.” It’s been several weeks of ongoing re-examination, and there has been no further word. Yesterday, I made the executive decision to believe in the June eighth date, under the theory that, like Schroëdinger and his cat, the waveform would not collapse without the imposition of an outside force. I believe I may have focused too hard, though, as I learned this morning that we’re now slated to return on May thirty-first. I don’t know what they plan to do with the money for the last eight days of the contract. Perhaps they intend to throw us a really big party! I won’t be holding my breath for that one, though.

I’m not overly distressed by this potential change in plans, as I think I’ve done a good job of getting what there is to get out of Kuwait. I’ve been to see the water towers, and been jet-skiing in the Gulf. I’ve learned enough Arabic to manage to communicate when buying food in the corner stores, and although I could probably have gotten by on English and pointing, this way is more satisfying. I’ve been in the citywide traffic jam of National Day, and driven around a fair portion of the country by virtue of having no idea where I was. I’ve woken up to calls to worship broadcast from the mosques’ megaphones, distorted into weirdly Lovecraftian chants by echoes and the wind. I wouldn’t say I fit in here, but I would say that I get by, which isn’t bad for only a few months in.

Kuwait’s an interesting place, but I just can’t find anything Kuwaiti here. It took me months to find tchotchke shops, and the only ones I’ve discovered are Indian. They sell neat trinkets, but they’re not local. The closest thing I’ve been able to find to Kuwaiti cuisine is a Lebanese restaurant. Everything’s a mash of the cultures that meet here, and almost nothing seems to be original to the area. I’m all right with this, as it allows me to kick back and read a book without feeling like I should be out there doing things that I won’t have a chance to do anywhere else—but on the other hand, I feel like I should feel like I should be out there, which gives me an odd sort of meta-angst. It’s too ephemeral a sensation to really affect me overmuch, but it has spurred some of my longer, fruitless drives seeking kitsch and tourist attractions.

I don’t mean to imply that I haven’t been having a good time here. It’s undeniably different, in ways which are largely good and nearly always entertaining. There’s some fantastically interesting architecture, both new and old, and the cultural differences are really neat to observe. It’s just hard to put that in a box to send back to someone to say, “I’m in Kuwait and thinking of you.”

So, for what it’s worth: I’m in Kuwait, and thinking of you.

March 28: Talking the Talk

In a startling departure from tradition, most of this email is not about things going wrong. Therefore, I’d like to begin with a quick postscript to the SunTrust idiocy, just so those of you who view me as your own personal Book of Job won’t feel let down.

In what I initially believed was a stroke of luck, I received an email survey from SunTrust the other day, inviting me to let them know how I felt about my recent interaction with them through their secure message center. As you may recall, I had quite strong feelings regarding this, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to share these with SunTrust directly. So I clicked on their radio buttons, expressing my displeasure with circles loitering near the bottom of the scale, and filled in the comment box with a short but pointed diatribe, detailing my issues and outlining how I felt the bank could improve its service. I clicked “Submit,” and found myself at a screen with the SunTrust logo and a variety of SQL form submission errors.

“Error: cannot write to file,” it said, and “invalid variable in field.” “Invalid submission,” it added, and “overflow.” Down at the bottom was a cheery note reading, “Thank you for your comments! Your input has been saved.” Yes, I’m just sure it has. SunTrust: official bank of wooden nickels.

Anyway, despite my wranglings with the institution holding all of my money, I’ve been out and about a fair bit since arriving in Kuwait. However, I haven’t really done anything that I feel is distinctly Kuwaiti. Nothing I’ve sought out has really struck me as unique to this country, or even to this region. The only thing so far that I can really say  couldn’t have seen anywhere else is the climate. The dust storm yesterday that turned the entire day dark orange is an excellent example of the sort of weather I just don’t see back home. I remarked several times that it looked like we were on Mars. I tried not to make that particular comment more than once to any one person, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling. You remember those first pictures that the Mars rovers sent back, with a bleak sandy landscape under a red sky, with the sun a tiny actinic point far up above? It looked just like that, only with buildings. Which, for the record, is about the only thing that could have made the Mars rover pictures cooler.

A large part of the problem I’m having in finding local color is that most of the population isn’t local, and those who are want to be citizens of the world. I still haven’t spoken more than a few words of Arabic to a native speaker, which is at least in part due to the fact that most of them would rather speak French or English. The other day at a gas station, I was making small talk with the attendant, a guy who was the very picture of a modern young Arab sheik—white robe, white head covering, mirrored sunglasses, laid-back attitude.

“Good afternoon,” he said to me, in thickly-accented English.

“Good afternoon,” I said. “You know, the only Arabic greeting I know is ‘a salaam aleikom.’ How do you say ‘good afternoon’ in Arabic?”

“Screw ‘a salaam aleikom.’ ‘Good afternoon’ is better.” He paused, and I considered the two copies of myself looking back from his mirrored sunglasses. “I’m from America. You?”

I grinned. “Also from America.”

He raised one hand slightly, as if to say, “Well, there you go.”

Even if I did find someone interested in speaking Arabic to me, though, I’d be in a bit of trouble unless they were immensely curious about subjects like the various places in the house where a mouse was. In that sort of conversation, I could hold my own quite well. “Laysa hunaaka faar taht al-sareer,” I could say confidently, gesturing to the bedroom, then to the kitchen. “Hunaaka firaan fee al-furn, wal-thallaja.”

I wouldn’t actually say “firaan,” though, because I wouldn’t remember that “mouse” had an irregular plural. I’d probably say “faaraat,” the equivalent of “the mouses.” This is something of an intentional choice on my part. The part of my book on basic Arabic that introduced plurals reads, in essence: “Arabic words are pluralized by adding -aat to the end. This is true for everything which doesn’t take an irregular plural. Unfortunately, the list of words taking irregular plurals is not merely extensive, but includes almost every word you’ve learned so far.”

My vocabulary at the moment consists of perhaps fifty nouns, half a dozen prepositions, and some useful words like “yes,” “no,” and “there is.” I’m working on some adjectives, but I haven’t learned any action verbs yet, which puts me slightly behind my parents’ dog in being able to comprehend a language I can’t speak. So, when faced with the proposition of doubling the number of words I had to remember without actually expanding my vocabulary at all, I chose instead the path of sounding ridiculous by saying “the mans” and “the mouses” for a while.

I think it’s a good call, as I was almost certainly going to forget that the plural of pen, “qalam,” was “aqlaam,” while the plural of window, “shubbaak,” was “shabaabeek.” I envisioned myself getting them tangled, asking someone for their qalmaameek, only to discover that that was a marriage proposition or something. Far safer, I felt, to simply tack -aat onto everything until I got a handle on the language.

My book suggests that there are rules governing some of the irregular plurals, which the authors have chosen not to share with me in this volume. Presumably, this is so that I will be forced to buy more books from them. The text is peppered with hints that there is much more knowledge just out of my grasp. “Later, patterns will emerge that will help you, but we’re keeping this knowledge secret for now,” it says, regarding the plurals. In another section, it taunts, “The verb ‘to be’ is not generally used—in the present tense. Good luck talking about something that’s already happened, sucker!” These quotes are from memory, so it’s possible I’ve amplified them a bit.

Most of the grammar seems fairly straightforward, which convinces me that there’s much more they’re not telling me. “The” is the only article; just tack an “al” onto the front and you’re good to go. As a side note, this makes reading road signs at highway speed a bit challenging. I’m still a bit slow at reading the Arabic, which means that when I’m tearing down the freeway, I don’t always have time to read the whole word to figure out where I am. I’ll get the first few letters, the first two of which invariably turn out to be “al.” You’d think I would learn to skip ahead two letters, but you would be, at least thus far, mistaken. My driving monologue contains a lot of, “All right, where am I? ‘alree’—shoot. ‘The Ree’ something. That’s helpful.”

“The” also marks the difference between an adjectival phrase and a full sentence. If you’re saying “the big mouse,” it’s “al-faar al-kabeer.” if you leave off the second “al,” the meaning becomes “the mouse is big.” This appeals to me, although I think it’s mainly because I can delude myself into thinking that I’m using full sentences just by tacking together two words. I’ll take my victories where I can get them.

I haven’t mastered the various possessive endings yet, mainly because every time I read the list all at once, I feel like I’m going through the stages of choking. “Ee, ak/ik, uh, haa, naa, kum, hum.” The last two are the gasping breaths taken after the Heimlich has been administered. Although this is an amusing visual, it’s not terribly helpful as a mnemonic, as I just imagine random sounds. I should be able to make this work though; the only mnemonic that’s stuck with me lately is “Mickey Killed Goofy For A Bodily Organ,” so clearly the morbidity appeals to me. That’s related to stars, though, and thus is somewhat out of place in the current discussion.

As you may have noticed from the above list, there’s a different pronunciation for the “your” ending depending on whether you’re talking to a man or a woman. I keep idly wondering what happens if you use the wrong one—do you have to apologize? If I walk into a room, see a rodent and ask, “Hal haatha faarak kabeer?”, then turn around to find out that the room’s occupant is a woman, will she be offended? I hope not, because I don’t know how to say “I’m sorry.” The best I could do is say, “Anti indik faaraat fee ghurthik!”—”You have mouses in your room!”—in an offended tone of voice, and hope to sidetrack her into apologizing for the vermin. If it worked, I might even learn how to say “I’m sorry,” although I’d likely end up saying it with a feminine ending.

This is similar to my plan for learning how to say “you’re welcome,” actually, and will probably work out about as well. Basically, the way it goes is, I say “shokran” to people, and listen for what they say back, on the assumption that that will be “you’re welcome.” So far, no one’s said anything back, which means either that my pronunciation is way off, or that it’s culturally acceptable to ignore people when they say “thank you.” I’m scrupulously avoiding doing anything that might be construed as helpful until I figure out which of these two it is. After all, if no one has a reason to thank me, I can’t give offense with an inappropriate response. There’s a flaw in this plan, of course, but if anyone points it out to me, I’ll just thank them and hear what they have to say in return.