Calling Fargo

One of the weird things I’ve noticed here is that everybody refers to phone numbers on the Air Guard base by the last three digits. It’s funny, because there are no “extensions” on base in the telecom sense of the word. There’s nowhere on base where a single, seven digit number gets dialed to reach an exchange and further subsets of three or four digit extensions. Everybody has their own phone number. And in America our phone numbers are segmented out into three digits of prefix, a dash, and then four digits of specific number.

A three digit area code may specify what state or county is being dialed in the USA, but the three digit prefix that Hollywood always represents as “555” in a phone number tells the dialer an awful lot about a phone number. What would be gibberish of (123) 456-7890 can be decoded rather quickly to the savvy. Back home in Tucson I could tell from a 298, 730, 295, or 791 prefix if the phone number belonged to D-M Air Force base, a Verizon wireless cell phone, the Air Guard unit by the airport or the city government. I’d be willing to bet major hospitals or the University own their own prefix.

But most importantly, that means that every phone number within a common prefix everywhere I’ve been in the United States has been referred to by the last four digits. Whether it’s been a military base or a city fire station, the numbers after the dash have all been recited.

Need to call so-and-so in that other department? He’s at 5210.

Personnel office? Call 3795.

Sergeant Jones? The supply person? 7413.

So it’s very strange to hear people here refer to a number by just the last three digits. It kind of makes sense, because the base is so small all the phone numbers share the prefix and the first digit of the last four. So every number would be something like 123-4XXX.

The problem is I’ve got 30+ years of phone numbers being in a 3-3-4 format, plus 15+ years of technical understanding the “why” and background to it. I just can’t think the way they do here, so when somebody tells me to call Dave by dialing 237 I wind up just staring at them in a befuddled state. That’s not the way the phones here work. If I just dial a random three digits I get tones and the “call cannot be completed as dialed” message. I still have to dial the prefix, and the first of the four digits that I don’t know because nobody ever bothers to say it aloud. So for all I know, the phone numbers here are (123) 456-X789 and I never know what X is.

It’s frustrating because I feel like an idiot, but it’s also comical because everybody on base is saying phone numbers “wrong” but they all know what they’re talking about. Just another of the dozens (hundreds?) of little bits of culture shock here in the northern prairie…

Ze Germans

This post is attempting to tackle two topics. I am almost positive they will not be intertwined in anything resembling an artful manner. So as you muddle into this ham-fisted essay, Dear Reader, remember I write this for my entertainment and not always yours. I’d say “caveat emptor”, but you’re reading this for free. -Eric

I’m somewhat embarrassed that other book I forgot to list reading in my last post was probably the one I enjoyed most. Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman is a collection of essays much like my introduction to the author, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. These two books in particular are collections of essays, and Klosterman is only six years older than me, so a lot of the Gen-X-ish stuff he writes about really speaks directly to me. That, and I’m a recovering pop culture junkie and Kevin Smith fan. So a former music critic for Spin, Esquire, GQ, etc. that makes a lot of footnotes (have you seen how prolifically I use parenthesis?), hilarious and seemingly random pop culture references, and is also really dang smart and analytical was just irresistible to me.

And yes, the “Gen-X” and “random pop culture references” bits were specifically to say, I understand he may not be for everyone. But since Michael Chrichton is dead, Klosterman just might be my favorite living author.

Granted, I’ve only read two of his books and both are essay collections rather than longer narratives. I get that. But now I’m “stuck” living in Fargo with my job, and as fate would have it another of Klosterman’s books that I want to get now is Fargo Rock City. Fargo is a cute little town, but at least ten years behind the cultural mainstream. The big concert they had last year was Creed, and I was offered free tickets because “I don’t know who these new bands are”.

2012. Creed. “New band.” Let that swim around in your brain a little. There was a pretty quotable joke at Creed’s expense for being lame/passe in Without a Paddle, and that was in 2004.

I understand pop culture is fickle, and this isn’t intended to get off on Creed nor Fargo bashing tangent. No, more than anything I feel like I can identify with Klosterman even more now. But I’m also pretty sure if I continue down a path of “we have so much in common” praise I’ll come across like Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female (poorly re-made as The Roommate in 2011), so I’ll mention here that he’s also a huge sports nut with a couple essays devoted to the topic in both books and I only read them to avoid missing any interesting insights or particularly funny zingers. I just don’t care about sports beyond college football and motorcycle racing, and even those are pushing it.

Anyhow, if essays comparing David Koresh to Curt Cobain, analysis of Saved by the Bell, why Garth Brooks went crazy and tried the Chris Gaines project or the stupidity of sitcom laugh tracks (both of which I’ll touch on later), I recommend either book. Eating the Dinosaur struck me as a little bit shorter and harder to follow, though that may have been because it was on my kindle and footnotes were relegated to a separate section rather than available at the bottom of the printed page, a la my copy of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. The majority of complaints from the minority of low-star ratings on Amazon claim he sounds like a know-it-all. As I’ve said, I think he’s just really dang smart; I suspect these readers didn’t like having their intellects challenged. If it sounds like a personality fit for you, give him a read.

Completely unrelated has been my exposure here while deployed on a NATO installation in Afghanistan to ze German culture. It’s been interesting, because I’m developing first-hand knowledge and experience with a people most Americans know anecdotally. In recent years the Germans have morphed into an almost mythical ideal in my mind because my exposure or knowledge of them has been primarily based on the vehicles, firearms or things they produce. Jony Ive may design some beautiful products for Apple, but his influence was Dieter Rams. I’m unsure if my awareness of design is a product of a more mainstream recognition or just the websites I tend to frequent, but references to Bauhaus have been prevalent for me the past two years. My Lamy pens are from Germany. My SIG P6 was made in West Germany, and Glocks are Austrian (close enough, to an American). I drive a Porsche 987 Boxster and a BMW motorcycle, and these people have autobahns and the N√ľrburgring. I even started listening to techno back in 2009 and loved the somewhat cold, modern functionality of my Volvo 850 Turbo (again, Swedish, but it’ll do for my purposes here). I believe efficiency should be considered a virtue. A people regarded for their precision (Swiss watches, again, close enough) were like gods to me.

Okay, so there was their bizarre fascination with David Hasselhoff and they always play the villains in movies, but whatever.

So actually being here and interacting with so many of them has been educational. I’ve only spent 24 hours in Germany before on a long layover. It was a beautiful country and they make my favorite beer in the world, but they’re still just people. It’s odd now to think “less” of a people than before yet still not think poorly of them. I haven’t met a German yet that can’t also speak English, and they pretty much ignore the speed limit they impose on everybody else when driving on base. They walk out into the street either oblivious or rudely demanding the right of way from vehicles, which is behavior completely unlike I expected. ArnieRaveThey play some really goofy music, like “Barbie Girl” in the gym (as opposed to American gyms playing rock almost exclusively), and can listen to Abba or disco without the slightest hint of giggling, mockery, sneering, irony, or embarrassment at a guilty pleasure. My wife even mailed me a cyalume glow stick so I could mock rave with them when they blast their music in our shared hangar.

But the thing that really cracks me up as a veteran of the American military is the ze Germans obviously have no dress code regulations on grooming/haircuts. Here’s a comically bad drawing I’ve done to illustrate.


That’s supposed to be a really long mohawk, slicked back like something out of Mad Men, worn with muttonchops. I’ve seen that particular hair cut minus the facial hair on more than one guy. I’ve seen otherwise attractive women with long hair, but either the left or right side of their head shaved. I’ve seen way too many guys rocking a chin curtain beard. (Very few people can actually pull this off, despite its wild popularity in the Fargo area. I think we’re being invaded by the Amish.) The only thing I haven’t seen in skull hair sculpting is a soul patch. I inelegantly recall Chuck Klosterman to quote why:

In the ten-thousand-year history of facial hair, no one has ever looked nonidiotic with a soul patch. In fact, the zenith of the soul patch’s legacy was Matt Dillon in Singles; Dillon grew a soul patch specifically because he was portraying an alt-rock d-bag.

Despite my concern over the chin curtain beard’s prevalence, even ze Germans have shown they have limits to their silliness.

Of course, this is really all just a difference of culture, what’s considered normal, and our general inability to see the really bizarre things we all do within our own societies. The example I offer up is polite laughter.

Klosterman’s essay on sitcom laugh tracks essentially asserts that we’ve all been subconsciously programmed to laugh at things that aren’t really very funny. (He uses a great breakdown of a Friends scene to illustrate.) But if you think about it, it makes sense in a way. How often do we type “haha” or “LOL” when we’ve uttered nothing of the sort? We don’t laugh out loud, but we claim to have in text messages all the time- all while thinking that guy on the bus who does laugh to himself at seemingly nothing is completely bonkers. And yet so much of our “laughter” is purely conditioned out of politeness, or for filler during impersonal conversations.

The Germans don’t fake laugh. To them, we all look like the crazy guy sitting on the bus. Klosterman writes, “This is not the only reason Germans think Americans are retarded, but it’s definitely one of them.”

Keeping that in mind has helped me stop calling people “weird” quite so freely and helped me experience foreign cultures better. Because apparently we’re all a little crazy, and we don’t even realize it. ūüôā

Shooting the Boot

There’s a hidden treasure on Eden Island, a man-made resort tucked neatly into one of the Mah√© bays in the archipelago of the Seychelles. It’s not one of gold or financial gain- in truth, the average man or woman would spend quite a bit of their own personal wealth to discover it. It’s not a prize that will bring power. But in a roundabout way it just might bring some youth or wisdom the seeker’s way. It’s a tiny bar, in a tiny shack on this tiny island. And it’s chock full of people who like rugby.

IMG_2542Eish! Bar is one of those places that seems incomprehensible in the United States (except maybe small towns in the midwest) in that it doesn’t have a website; just a Facebook page, and even that won’t tell you anything about it, really. The only other mention I can even find about the place in a quick Google search turns up a cursory mention in this article which is more about rugby, and tweet. And that’s if “Eish Bar” is specifically entered into Google. Otherwise this is a place with no digital signature on the web (’til now, I suppose), no signs posted or advertisements of its existence, and the entrance is facing away from any possible foot traffic. The only way to find this joint is by word-of-mouth, or happening upon the shack during a match and deciding to investigate a creepy-looking structure in the dark because screams that may well be murder intrigue you. (And if you’re one of the latter type, have you never seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre?!?!)

IMG_2544One of the guys also deployed at the site, Wally, was the latter (don’t ask me, he was a Harley nut and claimed to know¬†Sonny Barger) and a gregarious soul, so when he found this place that was only open one or two nights a week he went exploring and came back to our villa with the coolest and most disgusting tale of initiation ritual I could imagine trying at the time.

If it’s your first visit to Eish! Bar, you have to shoot the boot.

The tale, as it is told, is that years ago a U.S. Navy ship came through the area and during shore leave a couple sailors found out about the island’s rugby club. A friendly match ensued, and to everyone’s amazement the Americans won. Generally speaking, we don’t even know what rugby is, much less play it, much less play it enough to beat a bunch South Africans. One of the sailors was actually quite rugby savvy and knew about shooting the boot, so when they won he pulled off his cleat, filled it with beer, and drank it in one long guzzle. They all became fast friends and the boot was presented to the club, where it continues to live on a trophy shelf by the door, unwashed, and as grimy and disgusting as you might imagine to greet newcomers.


Just say “no”. It works in most languages.

I’ve already mentioned in the past that SeyBrew is a terrible beer. The “distinctly Seychellois” lager is done no great favors when poured into a stinky and decaying shoe, either. But amidst cheering South African accents and a warm reception, what can you do? You hold your nose and gulp it all down in one attempt, that’s what. And it’s easier to chug an entire beer in this manner than you might think, because the knowledge that stopping for a reprieve just means having to go back to it a second time encourages you to finish quickly.

I never knew that an entire beer could fit in a shoe, or that a shoe would be quite such a good vessel. As I saw this terrible dare being assimilated in front of me, I was really hoping the dirty and tattered looking thing might be full of holes, or that liquid would spill out and spare me from having to drink the entire thing. If anything, the newly fluid contents of the cleat seemed to soak into the sole and soft interior to revive past years of stale beer from previous dares, and drag along a new infusion of what I can only imagine was foot, sweat, and sock. Mmm… Tasty.

I wanted to hold my nose, but I didn’t know how well I’d be able to swallow then and the tongue and upper of this disgusting idea would be up against my face as I supped from the heel anyway. There was no getting my hand in there. And with thirty smiling, welcoming, expectant faces around me there was no backing out (or insulting them or acting milquetoast in front of them). I flashed back to the enthusiasm I felt earlier in the day to have this crazy story and was reminded once again of the phrase I utter all too often: It seemed like a good idea at the time. I held my breath, and I drank.

Because I’m a lousy story-teller, I’ve presented the narrative a little out of order here and already described the flavor. I won’t describe the texture, because I think it’s gross enough to mention simply that there was one. Use your imagination and you likely won’t be far off. But the cheers that erupted in that tiny shed almost eradicated any revulsion that I felt from this deed. Almost. The two fingers of Jameson on the rocks I sipped for the next hour did a lot more to cleanse my palate and ease my soul. Surely nobody had died from drinking that, had they?

IMG_2543Wally and I hung out there a bit longer as the South Africans drank more and the game (pardon me, match) went on. I demonstrated my knowledge of the game, which consisted of it being played with a ball and only being allowed to pass laterally or behind oneself. And I was pretty sure there was something called a scrum. Turns out, scoring is called a “try” in rugby, which sounds goofy until you defend the term “touchdown” for American football and have pointed out that our game rarely involves kicking the thing and is named somewhat ironically. I thought it was funny to see sponsors names actually painted onto the grass, rather than the digital overlays that seem to happen so often now in televised American sports coverage. It was the Cape Town Storm vs. New Zealand Hurricane and I didn’t have a clue what was going on. But when surrounded by South Africans, I figured cheering for Cape Town was a safe bet. The cheers and shouts drowned out anything the tiny TV we gathered around could have told us, but that wasn’t the point, really. It was the fellowship that people had gathered for.


All in all it was a pretty great night, spent with friendly people in high spirits. I’m not about to start advocating for the abandonment of basic hygiene, but I will say I was excited by the idea from the first time I heard about it. And there’s something key in that.

It seems like the older we get the more we say “no” or resign ourselves to opportunities. So few people I know have an adventurous spirit- I’d guess maybe five percent. So I tend to think that adventures and maybe even silly dares are, in themselves, the fountain of youth. Ponce de Le√≥n’s most famous obsession isn’t a thing to be found, but a spirit to be fostered. And it doesn’t have to involve some hidden away island bar in the Indian Ocean. It could be something as simple as going hiking, trying Geocaching, or turning down an unfamiliar road. My point is simply this: be willing to abandon your comfort zone, just for a little while. Because that’s when discoveries are made and cool stories are gained to tell others. The power to make your life story more interesting is in your hands. Get out there.

Flyover Country

While researching a brand of wristwatch yesterday I chanced upon an article where the term “flyover country” was levied most certainly as a pejorative.

I’ve been guilty of this myself a few times. It’s no secret that I don’t see eye-to-eye with the local culture/way of doing things in Fargo, ND where I currently reside at my employer’s pleasure. I only volunteered for the Fargo posting because nobody else wants to go there and I was sucking up to curry favor with management for my plan to request Italy, Germany, or England in another year or two. It became very apparent to me that I’m just not a midwest personality. I ache to be out west again, in mountain country and to have a city large enough to support a Cheesecake Factory within an hour’s drive. My wife heard an old man from Bismarck say they couldn’t live with the “hustle and bustle” of Fargo. We cracked up laughing, not derisively, but in amusement at our own culture shock. How two different people observe the same subject but see two different things. He sees “hustle and bustle” where we see a quaint, small town.

But as miserable as Fargo sometimes makes us (Arizona natives in a Fargo winter are a pretty bad match) and as firm as we are in our plans to leave when possible, one thought keeps shouting at me from the back of my mind.

These people that big-city folk like to call “hicks” grow and provide all our food.

Let that sink in a minute. I might really enjoy big city life, but you tell me what metropolis in America isn’t a net importer of everything that sustains living? Millions upon millions of people in America would starve if it wasn’t for those “hicks” or “bumpkins”. Think California or New York could feed their own state’s population if they had to? Not on your life. Texas could probably feed Dallas/Ft. Worth. The pacific northwest (where my wife and I dream of moving) would be fine. I don’t know how well Arizona could support Phoenix and Tucson.

My point is this: I don’t like living in the midwest or the way they do things here, but I also don’t grow my own food and wasn’t raised as a hunter. My food comes from the grocery store. So now I do my very best to keep my mouth shut and be grateful, because my well-paying job doesn’t actually make me self-sustaining.

Believe me, this is flyover country and there is little if anything noteworthy here. But for the sake of manners, consider what you eat for a month and then consider being nice.


It’s very odd to see so many Porsche commercials on TV (actually, it’s the only car commericals I’ve seen) when I’m surrounded by such abject poverty on the east coast of Africa. I think most of the channels we get are from South Africa.

We’re not in Kansas anymore…

You know something is awry when you find yourself gazing longingly at that nice, big car and imagining how comfortable it must be… and it’s a Civic. This little Hyundai i10 has wheels so tiny they make 100kph/60mph feel like Evel Knievel levels of stunt driving.

I miss my car.

Thanksgiving overseas

I may begin to wax poetic here, which feels a little odd for me since I’ve never really taken Thanksgiving all that seriously. One year when I was active duty and stationed in England I had completely forgotten it was Thanksgiving. I just showed up to work like any other Thursday and thought it was weird the base was so quiet. It wasn’t until leadership brought in a whole mess of food that I remembered which Thursday it was. With that kind of cavalier attitude toward turkey day, the introspection I’m feeling now is surprising.

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. Not Christian, mind you, because there are lots of Christians elsewhere in the world (for instance, those native to European countries) that don’t really celebrate it despite a passing familiarity with the idea from our entertainment output to the globe. I read somewhere that the Pilgrims dug a lot more graves than they built huts, so there’s certainly a predominantly Christian flavor to Thanksgiving- but never forget it’s also ours as Americans. (This is also evidence to me that football is the REAL American sport, because we don’t sit down to watch that perverted version of cricket that sissies call America’s pasttime after we gorge ourselves. But that’s a topic for another day.)

So, from my deployed location, we paid roughly $40 for our buy-in to a catered Thanksgiving meal, and this is where you know certain dishes just don’t cross cultures. Some guys here were pretty disappointed, to be perfectly honest. I say it was worth the money just for the story! Yeah, some of the food was terrible, but you know what? I’m really and truly grateful. My spirits are high, my coffee cup is full (as is my belly), and nobody’s shooting at us. Just thought I’d throw that last bit in there for some perspective. So we had beef as tough as shoe leather (and for once, I’m not exaggerating) instead of turkey. Big deal! It had lots of rosemary, tasted ok, and wasn’t yet another peanut butter sandwich! You just had to chew it more. A lot more. And the green bean casserole was more quartered mushrooms than anything, with green beans diced up like green onions- but it was tasty. And the pies…? Well nobody’s really sure what’s in the pies. We think those dark things are raisins, but even after eating it we question what the filling is. They don’t taste like any apples or pumpkins we’ve ever had… And I’m laughing the entire time.

I’ll let the other guys gripe. I don’t care. Because while I’ll whine from time to time about suffering through poor internet service, the fact of the matter is we’ve got it pretty good. See, we get to LEAVE here eventually. And come on, after growing up eating so many Thanksgiving dinners at a fire station, how cool is it to be chowing down in an aircraft hangar with some of the most sophisticated aircraft in the world as a backdrop? So they don’t know how to cook traditional American meals here. So what? I didn’t know what the heck their space alien-looking fruit was until a day or two ago.

I don’t really know how to communicate what I’m feeling right now- I’ve eaten better meals in the states and been less satisfied. Was the food worth the money? Heck no! But I laughed and had a good time, and think it’s more than worth it for the story. And when I look at the huge spread of not-very-good food, the fact is we still have a LOT. And that changes just outside the fence line.

So enjoy your turkey day. Take real inventory of what you have (or in some cases, what you don’t) and realize there’s so much to be thankful for. As Americans we are really and truly blessed- and only the most selfish see it otherwise. Considering how “crappy” this Thanksgiving is here, I don’t know that I could’ve enjoyed it more and I truly hope everyone who reads this gets a chance to truly embrace what Thanksgiving is all about, rather than just roll through an annual routine. God bless you, and have a happy Thanksgiving.