Behind the Book: The Guard

August 27th, 2017 — 6:02am

In early 2011, my family and I lived near the US embassy compound in Amman, Jordan—so near, in fact, that our apartment was inside the outer guard ring. I was very happy about this situation. Two weeks after my three-year-old daughter and I arrived, my husband was sent to Italy indefinitely to help with a NATO mission. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring was taking root and there were protests outside of the Syrian embassy, protests outside of the American embassy, protests in the rural areas outside of Amman over the high costs of cooking oil and bread, and protestors in Amman demanding political reforms. Then Osama Bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces in Pakistan, which was seen by many as another US invasion of a country’s sovereign territory. Prime-time news was filled with burning American flags.

So you can imagine how much I loved seeing the US embassy guards standing at the gates.

Everyone stationed at the embassy had to attend a Regional Security Brief within a few days of arrival. We were told to change up our driving routines in order to make it hard for us to be followed, to look under our vehicles for explosive devices, to not drive beyond Amman city limits after sunset, and to always let a fellow American know when we went on a trip.

We had also been warned about our Western ways, with a special emphasis on how American women needed to be sensitive to this culture quite different from our own. It was recommended our clothing cover us from wrist to ankle. That we be aware conservative Muslim men would feel uncomfortable shaking the hands of women not related to them. How it was verboten to sit in the front seat of a taxi, the front seat being reserved for the wife of the taxi driver and our presence there could be misconstrued as a sexual advance. How we should try to not touch the hand of a male cashier at a grocery store when he was handing over change, lest he view this as suggestive.

But the embassy guards, well, we did not need to worry about them; they had been thoroughly vetted, many had worked with Western companies in the past, some had even lived in America. Their English was better than the average Jordanian, and they were accustomed to our strange cultural differences, like American women wearing shorts and tank tops to the embassy gym (otherwise we were advised to never wear shorts and tank tops in Jordan).

There was the guard who showed me video of his son’s gymnastic competitions. The guard who handed candy to my daughter, his pockets crammed with single-wrapped mints. The guard who meowed because he’d seen us feed stray cats. I brought them cookies, bottles of water, chocolate bars. I would have my daughter present the treats, and the guards would direct their thanks at her, press their hands to their hearts, say “Alhamdillah,” or Praise God,” pinch her cheek or ruffle her blond hair.

The guard who worked the gate closest to my house spoke very little English, and while I spoke very little Arabic we exchanged pleasantries almost every day. He was in his forties, clean-shaven, wore glasses, and would throw open his arms when he saw us. Most Jordanians said “You are welcome!” This guard would shout, “A million, million welcomes!” Then one of us would inevitably say something the other would not understand, we’d pantomime merrily for a few incoherent minutes, and I’d wave good-bye.

About a month after my husband left, my daughter and I came to this particular gate and found him on duty with another guard, a young man with beautiful green eyes whose English was better than most. The older guard reached into his back pocket as I drew close, produced a carefully folded piece of paper, and handed it to me. I hesitated, knowing this was out of the ordinary.

I opened the letter and began to read, the words in capital letters, the writing painstakingly exact:

You are beautiful. Your smile is the sun—

I looked up, startled, feeling a blush warm my neck. The guard was watching me, nodding. I glanced down to read more just as the younger guard tore the paper out of my hand. He began to yell at the older man in rapid, angry Arabic, pointing at the high embassy wall behind us, then stabbing his finger in the direction of my apartment. I froze, trying to keep a smile on my face and ignore whatever was going on.

The young man crumpled the paper in his fist. He stared with those green eyes into mine.

“He does not understand,” he said. There was something combative about his face, his words. I nodded, chastened, as if I did understand. I took my daughter’s hand and walked toward the embassy. Later, I exited the embassy by another gate, sneaking around to my apartment building without having to pass those guards.

He does not understand.

What could those words possibly mean? And how could I ever find out? He didn’t understand I was married? He didn’t understand it was odd for a near-stranger to tell a woman she was beautiful?

Or he didn’t understand that I smiled and chatted with everyone, that it wasn’t a declaration of affection on my part?

***

They relocated those guards.

I’d occasionally see the older guard at one of the farther gates. He always welcomed me but he did not put his arms out in the joyful way he had before; he did not say “A million, million welcomes!”

And he never wrote me a letter again.

How I wish I had held on to it, read it in its entirety, studied the intentions and misspellings. It could have been nothing more than a show of friendship, Jordanians often being more effusive than Westerners. I had strangers tell me I was like a daughter to them. Once, I spent a few hours with a woman and she yelled as I drove away, “I love you! I love you! I love you!”

He does not understand.

So I started writing a short story about Jordan as a way to figure it out.

That story became a three-hundred-page book, The Confusion of Languages, and could have been much longer. All those endless opportunities for miscommunication.

I lived in Jordan for a year. While I never wore a tank top or sat in the front seat of a taxi, I’m still not sure exactly what I understand—not just about the Middle East, but about men and women. About people. About the ways we get one another wrong every day, about the moments that seem small but for some reason linger.

About all the fragile messages we want so desperately to share with another human being, only to find the distance is just too far, and it’s too easy to lose the words before we ever get the chance to read them.

***

For more of Siobhan’s essays, fiction, photos of Jordan, or to order copies of her new novel, The Confusion of Languages, please see her website: www.siobhanfallon.com

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Rock ‘n Roll, Baby!

June 20th, 2017 — 3:18am

My, oh my, I feel my excitement (read: blood pressure) rise: the long awaited book release is almost here!!!

I mean, what can possibly compete with the glorious book tour, with it’s long flights, hotel stays, visits to book stores, chats with readers, ALL WITHOUT CHILDREN?

I’ll take on my public speaking anxiety any day.

Bring it on, stage fright!

Please stop on by if you are near any of the above bookstores/libraries!

If I get my act together, I’ll try to blog a bit along the way, so please check back again soon.

THANK YOU and hope to see some of you on the road!

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Valerie Trueblood’s Criminals

May 17th, 2017 — 11:41am

I love to read. But the older I get the more critical I am of words on the page, and the more willing I am to put a book down unfinished, in a way that my younger self, that (pre-childrearing) self, who thought she had endless time ahead, would never have dared do. Now I find myself impatient with other people’s words unless, well, the writing is amazing. Occasionally I come across a book that clutches me by the core and demands that not only must I read from beginning to end TWICE, but I must tell every other person who loves words to read it too. And the book that most recently possessed me so thoroughly was Valerie Trueblood’s Criminals.

No one writes like Trueblood. Her books (I have read her three story collections, as well as her novel) are not ‘easy’ reads. The tales are intense, complicated, sprawling, multi-layered. There are mentions of Frost and Whitman. There are times when I begin a story and feel as if I’m blinking at disparate puzzle pieces, but slowly, expertly, Trueblood gently guides those pieces together and the image/epiphany that snaps together is worth every ounce of close reading I had to do get there.

My favorite story in Criminals is “Skylab.” In thirty pages, Trueblood manages to do everything I tried to do in my three hundred page novel, The Confusion of Languages. It’s the story of Amy, a newlywed nurse who falls in love with a much older, married doctor. The two flee America together, leaving damaged families behind, and land in Malaysia, where everything, from stray dogs to bumble bees to random cans of hairspray, are not what they seem. Amy, suddenly unmoored from a capable life that gave her meaning, feels an unfathomable, Shakespearean guilt, and their love, which had seemed so vital and epic in the hospital where they had met and hatched their escape, is suddenly no match for the misery the affair has set into motion. And all along a satellite, the doomed Skylab, careens off course just as surely as Amy does, the trajectory marred and flawed, now dangerously flailing, falling, and the best possible outcome is that no one will be killed by its plummet.

Criminals is full of stories about unexpected passions, of people trying to do the right thing and failing again and again, of heart break and insecurity, of flaws and attempts at redemption. In other words, it’s about every person you’ve ever known. When I read Valerie Trueblood, I want to write better, wiser, more resonate fiction. And in some strange way but beautiful way, when I read Valerie Trueblood, I also want to be a better, wiser, more resonate human being.


In typical Siobhan-smitten fashion, I chose Valerie Trueblood’s Criminals for our most recent embassy book club, hosted at my home (I didn’t think to take the photo above until most of the book club had already left, darn it!). The night was fantastic, my husband, KC, who’s a sharp reader, said it was the best book club discussion we’d ever had. It also gave us a great opportunity to email a few questions to Trueblood, who was so lovely to provide these indepth replies:

1. Would you mind giving us a little biographical information? Did you ever live abroad, especially in a Muslim majority country, similar to Amy’s time in Malaysia in Skylab? And the details in Astride are so amazingly specific (the typewriter tape!), did you intern at the Pentagon in the sixties? If so, how did those experiences inform your stories, and if not, how did you research and develop such settings and details?

My father grew up in a farm family, but became a geographer with an Asian specialty (Burma) and taught for several years at the University of Rangoon. There he met my mother, a Yorkshire missionary’s daughter who was teaching zoology. She was known thereabouts for her beauty and their story was the first romance I heard and loved. They left Burma when WWII began, and he went to work for Army intelligence in D.C., commuting fifty miles from our rural home in Virginia. I was one of their four children, and had the long happy childhood people say does not produce writers.

I can honestly say I always wanted to write stories. I didn’t even want to; I was more or less at the mercy of the scenes populating my mind, and hijacking it in grade school once I got there. I would sneak off to tell them or act them out aloud when I thought I was alone—a family joke, as it wasn’t easy to be alone in a family that size. We had no TV (my English mother thought it was an American notion and would go away), but stories were everywhere in that part of the South, in all the talk in stores, in the sermons, coming over the P.A. system in high school, in visits from the doctor and the milkman, the vet and the occasional drifter coming down the B&O railroad tracks needing food. Everybody had stories. And there was the glorious radio with its serials and soaps—X minus 1, Helen Trent, Sergeant Preston, The Shadow.

Do I write anything resembling these things? No. But I do hear the voices of Virginia always, and I remember the stories, the gentle ones told to instruct us but more particularly those of disaster—barns afire, ordeals of weather & crops, rogue animals who jumped gates or trampled their owners, murders, revenges taken, children sledding into cars. I’m sure they deepened my interest in how people cope with what happens rather than how they cause what happens.

I attended the county high school with a superb Latin teacher, Mrs. Lillian Bridges, who made me love the Aeneid and go off to college planning to major in Classics. At Brown I fell under the spell of the avant-garde novelist John Hawkes. Writing classes were a rarity then, and his was an ordeal by fire for the provincial I was. Why he encouraged me I don’t know. Then John Berryman had a year there as visiting professor, and his blazing mind was a guide for my own stumbles into language.

I did intern in the Pentagon; I did live with my husband in Malaysia when he taught at the Universiti Malaya. My circumstances weren’t those of the characters in my stories, and never have been, although no one can write fiction scrubbed of what’s been seen, known, experienced and felt in her/his own life.

2. There is a feeling of Hemingway in your stories – the prose and especially the dialogue is very lean and makes the reader work. Do you have a deliberate process that you use to cut and trim your stories or do you write the stories as they generally appear on the page?

I’m chuckling at the mention of Hemingway, though the Nick Adams stories meant a lot to me, and the novels were what we read in American lit classes back then along with Fitzgerald and the newcomer Flannery O’Connor. The leanness in my stories is probably due to cutting rather than to luck with a draft or not having drafts at all. I have them and they go on changing for years. That can be good or bad!

I do love dialogue, what people really say, and I hurry to get it written down when I hear it. The country voice in particular is music to me, from any region of the U.S., and it will well up in my own speech I’m told. Like many writers I’m an awful eavesdropper. I love the things people say in cafes and gas stations and at my son’s gigs in dive bars, but also what they say—we say—when we are at the extremes of emotion in our yards and kitchens and bedrooms, or when we’re hopeless and trying to find a truthful answer or an extenuating lie.

3. Most of these stories seem to be from the point of view of women. Not to say that they paint men in a bad light, since it’s the women who often stir up the trouble, but we have less insight into the male mind. Did you deliberately try to write stories from the female point of view?
You’re right that I more often write in the voice of or from the perspective of a female character, but I do have quite a number of stories (not all yet published) from the point of view of a male, and I find that no matter what the difficulties are, my female characters are usually very sympathetic to the male. I think the human predicament is just that, and even as a feminist I would not want to weigh the sufferings of one sex against those of the other. In CRIMINALS, the stories “His Rank,” “You Would Be Good” and “The War Poem” take place in the sore hearts of men.

In every other story in that book (I think, I hope) the problems of the males, including the young boy as well as the bodyguard in “Sleepover,” are close to the center of the story and bring out a fierce, if frustrated, tenderness in the female protagonist. In “Astride,” the Ukrainian Orlenko isn’t just a foil for the maturing process of two American girls, but the source and victim of the story’s action. In “Skylab” the young woman endures and externalizes all the pain of her husband’s acts and choices as well as her own. But that’s just how I see it; I’m sure there are other interpretations, and I’d love to hear them. It will be enlightening and helpful to me to hear how readers react to this question and to these characters!

Cork International Short Story Festival, 2011. Patrick Cotter, poet & festival organizer, Valerie Trueblood, and me, clearly thrilled to meet one of America's finest short story writers

(For more on Cork International Short Story festival, see my blog from September 2011: http://siobhanfallon.com/blog/?m=201109)

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The MilspoFAN interview

February 16th, 2017 — 1:11am

This interview first posted on the Military Fine Artists Network, or MilspoFAN, on January 31, 2017. Thanks for letting me repost here!

MilspoFAN: Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today.
Siobhan: The journey has been a fairly scenic one. I met my husband in 2000, while I was bartending at my father’s Irish pub right outside the front gate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. My husband, KC, had just graduated and was staying on for a few months coaching soccer at the USMA prep school before heading to Fort Benning. I was working my way through getting an MFA in Creative Writing at the New School in NYC, and my future husband, hearing this, told me he loved to write. I’d met plenty of West Point cadets and soldiers and officers over the years, but this one won me over with talk of literature.

KC went to Fort Benning, Georgia, and then Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and we were married on the beach in Oahu just before he deployed for a year to Afghanistan in 2004. I’m going to list the other posts we went to after getting married, it’s too exhausting to give a description of each and I have a feeling your readers know the deal: Fort Benning, GA (again); Fort Hood, TX (my husband did two year long deployments to Iraq during our three year assignment at Hood); Monterey, CA; Amman, Jordan; Falls Church, VA; and now we are in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

MilspoFAN: How has your role as a military spouse impacted your work as a writer- creatively, logistically, or otherwise?
Siobhan: Well, creatively each post has been inspiring, and all of them are so vividly different from each other that I usually can’t help but write about them. I like to think that the settings of my work are as important as the characters themselves. All equally determine the story. Perhaps I take the adage “write what you know” a little too seriously? I enjoy examining the different ways people live, whether it be how people are on a military base vs. outside it, or how Western women living in the Middle East blend (or don’t) into a different culture. You Know When the Men Are Gone is set in Fort Hood, Texas, during a deployment of a brigade and I worked very hard to get the real Fort Hood, from the vast, scrubby firing ranges to the clever street names like Tank Destroyer or Hell-On-Wheels, into the stories. I’ve also written about Hawaii: one of the characters in You Know When the Men Are Gone met her husband when he was stationed at Schofield, and my story in the anthology Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, is also set in Oahu. The new novel, The Confusion of Languages, takes place in Amman, Jordan, where my family and I lived in 2011. Of course we were stationed at all of the above, so I feel like the writing that came out of these places were gifts from the United States Army. It’s also helpful that a writing career is portable; I can take it with me no matter what corner of the world the military throws us into.

On the downside I inevitably miss opportunities in America. It’s difficult to do a reading or book signing at an indie book store in Chicago when you live in Jordan or Abu Dhabi. And while planning the release of my new novel this summer, I know I have a very small window of time when I will be on U.S. soil during the school break of my small daughters. Combine that with the responsibilities of seeing family and friends, who I usually only get to see once a year, and my blood pressure starts to rise with thoughts of all the ground I have to cover in a such a short amount of time. I really have to be focused about what I can accomplish in advance, and get the word out as much as possible before I even get on a plane. Naturally, I also participate in fewer panels and conferences than I would like because of the tremendous distance. But every once in a while some generous writing program will send me a plane ticket, and of course there is social media, email, and Skype for staying in touch with readers or book clubs.

My husband is very supportive and there are times we can work in an extra trip stateside for me, as long as we can balance childcare and travel expenses with his long work hours. So yes, the distance and unpredictable nature of military life does make it more difficult. You do what you can. We military spouses know how to roll with the punches, and my family and I have been pretty darn blessed with some excellent locations. So like everything in life, it’s a trade off.

MilspoFAN: Of your 2011 work, You Know When the Men are Gone, the New York times wrote “This lean, hard-hitting short-story collection outshone some of the year’s most imposing doorstop-size novels.” How does your writing style and writing process for your first work of short stories compare to your upcoming full-length work, Confusion of Languages?

Siobhan: A novel is a pain in the ass. Honestly, I didn’t think I had any idea how hard it would be. I thought going from stories to novels was a natural progression, something that I’d be able to do without much effort, especially after I practiced so much by writing all those lousy novel drafts that are still lurking on my old hard drives. Right? And everyone was always telling me that my stories read like small novels, and that they wanted more. So I thought I’d just write, you know, more, as in a really, really long short story. HA!

You can read a short story in one sitting. Of course there are things that happen off the page, but the author can keep track of every detail in thirty pages, sometimes to the point where I remember whole snatches almost word for word. You can sit down and sip your coffee and read and say aha! I need to change this and this and then go get another cup of coffee and come back and make those changes. Thirty pages is a small town with a no name grocery store. But three hundred pages! I could never get my mind around the three hundred pages. Three hundred pages is New York City on New Year’s Eve. You can’t possibly keep track of what made it into the novel or not in one sitting, especially after all the editing and rewriting and gnashing of teeth. There are notebooks and index cards and piles of drafts taller than your four year old daughter of everything you deleted and reinserted and deleted again, how can you possibly remember everything?

But you do it. It takes time. Painstaking editing and screaming at your children not to come in and disturb Mommy again for another damn cup of apple juice! You feel like the worst writer (and mom) in the world and the biggest failure and no one will read you and those who do won’t ever be able to look you in the eye again because now they know you have absolutely no talent—and then you write the most beautiful paragraph you have ever written, or figure out why one of your characters behaves in a certain way, or how this one very important plot line can tie seamlessly into another. And that epiphany keeps you going. And when all those terrible thoughts seize your brain again, amazingly enough another epiphany will smile at you.

You need to remember that the things you want to say are there on the page, black and white and real, and it’s worth all the self doubt and agony and hangdog looks of your poor neglected children. Tomorrow you will take the kids to the park, you promise! Writing should be hard. Readers are going to dedicate hours and hours, days maybe, of their precious lives, reading what you have penned, letting your words fill their heads and linger in their thoughts. Those words better be your best.

MilspoFAN: What’s next for you?
Siobhan: The new novel, Confusion of Languages, will be out June 27, 2017. It started as a short story I wrote in Jordan in May of 2011. That means it’s taken me about six years. Dear God, that’s the first time I’ve done the math. SIX YEARS!! Plus more rewrites than I could even count at this point. I’d started each rewrite from scratch– I’m talking blinking cursor on a blank computer screen, five, six, seven times. I would work from a draft that I printed out (300 $%#@ pages!) next to my computer, but I would retype everything all over again because it felt like the only way to really be in the story, to allow myself to write new material and edit/ catch every nuance of the material I might want to reuse/retype. When I just cut and paste, I feel like I am less critical, I don’t get seized by words in the same way or see the story as something malleable that I can drastically change if need be.

That said, now I’m taking a little bit of a break. It feels good to let new ideas sort of well up in me again, rather than focusing so completely on The Confusion of Languages. I’m writing some non-fiction essays about life in Jordan, thinking about ideas for future projects, letting this incredibly weird and wonderful world of Abu Dhabi inspire me. But it’s nice to not be caught in the thrall of something as overwhelming as working on a novel, if at least for a little while.

MilspoFAN: Is there anything else that you would like to share with MilspoFAN readers?
Siobhan: Reach out to other Military spouses who are in the arts as much as possible. There are more of us than you think. And we are pretty freaking fantastic! Read Andria Williams most excellent blog Military Spouse Book Review (https://militaryspousebookreview.com/),every word that lady writes is brilliant (you should see her Lego creations) but Andria also shares the space with other mil spouse writers who chime in to review books or write blogs of their own on her page. It always feels good to know we’re not the only ones who worry about these insane mil lives of ours. For something a little more ‘highbrow’ but definitely worth being aware of, I recommend Peter Molin’s blog Time Now (https://acolytesofwar.com/), which reviews all military related arts, from photography to film to writing to dance to theater productions. Molin is incredibly supportive of mil spouses as well as female vets, so it’s not just a list of macho men war novels, if you know what I mean (I’m sure those of you who married to infantry men like me know exactly what I mean).

I want to thank you, Jessica, and I also want to thank all of you who are reading. We need to support each other, and this site is doing that beautifully. We are far flung, we don’t have the natural support system of the home town neighborhoods where we grew up, the libraries and churches and cafes and town halls where we could gather and spread the word about our different projects, so we have to improvise and create our forums online, in places like this. So let’s spread the word and support each other here, and show everyone how much mil spouses have to offer, how we’re not at all the way stereotypes paint us to be, how diverse and talented and amazing we can be.

MilspoFan: https://milspofan.wordpress.com/
Time Now https://acolytesofwar.com/
Military Spouse Book Review https://militaryspousebookreview.com/

Learn more about Siobhan’s books at: http://siobhanfallon.com/books.html

Excerpt from You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon

Three a.m. and breaking into the house on Cheyenne Trail was even easier than Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash thought it would be. There were no sounds from above, no lights throwing shadows, no floorboards whining, no water running or the snicker of late-night TV laugh tracks. The basement window, his point of entry, was open. The screws were rusted, but Nick had come prepared with his Gerber knife and WD-40; got the screws and the window out in five minutes flat. He stretched onto his stomach in the dew-wet grass and inched his legs through the opening, then pushed his torso backward until his toes grazed the cardboard boxes in the basement below, full of old shoes and college textbooks, which held his weight.
He had planned this mission the way the army would expect him to, the way only a soldier or a hunter or a neurotic could, considering every detail that ordinary people didn’t even think about. He mapped out the route, calculating the minutes it would take for each task, considering the placement of streetlamps, the kind of vegetation in front, and how to avoid walking past houses with dogs. He figured out whether the moon would be new or full and what time the sprinkler system went off. He staged this as carefully as any other surveillance mission he had created and briefed to soldiers before.
Except this time the target was his own home.
. . .
He should have been relieved that he was inside, unseen, that all was going according to plan. But as he screwed the window back into place, he could feel his lungs clench with rage instead of adrenaline.
How many times had he warned his wife to lock the window? It didn’t matter how often he told her about Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, who had gained access to his victims through open basement windows. Trish argued that the open window helped air out the basement. A theory that would have been sound if she actually closed the window every once in a while. Instead she left it open until a rare and thundering storm would remind her, then she’d jump up from the couch, run down the steps, and slam it shut after it had let in more water than a month of searing-weather-open-window-days could possibly dry.
Before he left for Iraq, Nick had wanted to install an alarm system but his wife said no.
“Christ, Trish,” he had replied. “You can leave the windows and all the doors open while I am home to protect you. But what about when I’m gone?”
She glanced up at him from chopping tomatoes, narrowed her eyes in a way he hadn’t seen before, and said flatly, “We’ve already survived two deployments. I think we can take care of ourselves.”
Take care of this, Nick thought now, twisting the screw so violently that the knife slipped and almost split open his palm, the scrape of metal on metal squealing like an assaulted chalkboard. He hesitated, waiting for the neighbor’s dog to start barking or a porch light to go on. Again nothing. Nick could be any lunatic loose in the night, close to his unprotected daughter in her room with the safari animals on her wall, close to his wife in their marital bed.
Trish should have listened to him.
. . .
This particular reconnaissance mission had started with a seemingly harmless e-mail. Six months ago, Nick had been deployed to an outlying suburb of Baghdad, in what his battalion commander jovially referred to as “a shitty little base in a shitty little town in a shitty little country.” One of his buddies back in Killeen had offered to check on Trish every month or so, to make sure she didn’t need anything hammered or lifted
or drilled while Nick was away.
His friend wrote:
Stopped by to see Trish. Mark Rodell was there. Just
thought you should know.
That was it. That hint, that whisper.
Mark Rodell.

Coming June 27, 2017:
Excerpt from The Confusion of Languages, Siobhan Fallon

We are close, so close, to Margaret’s apartment, and I feel myself sink deeper into the passenger seat, relieved that I have succeeded in my small mission of getting Margaret out of her home, if only for a few hours. The day is a success. Sure, I
had to let her drive, something I usually avoid. Margaret is always too nervous, too chatty, looking around at the pedestrians, forgetting to put on her signal, stomping on the brakes too late. But today I actually managed to snap her out of her sadness.
I have done everything a good friend ought to do.
It’s not until we reach the intersection at Horreyya and Hashimeyeen that I realize my mistake. I’ve misjudged the time, something I never do. Friday prayers have already let out. We’d stopped by the ceramics house to pick up a box of pottery I’d
ordered and Margaret, being Margaret, sat down for too long with the hijab-ed women at their worktable, letting them touch Mather, pinching his cheeks and thighs, rubbing silica dust all over his tender baby skin. Now the intersection ahead is congested, chaotic. I see men strolling from the mosques, climbing into the cars they triple-parked along the main road.
I sit up straight, the seatbelt pressing against my chest. The traffic light turns yellow as we approach and cars alongside us speed by. Margaret could step on the gas and easily make the light but both of us see a man on the sidewalk, waving his
entire arm in the air.
“Just go—” I urge, but Margaret shakes her head, slowing the car, the corner of her mouth turning up.
“It’s uncanny how he always spots me.” She says something like this every single time and I usually reply, The man’s livelihood depends on his ability to spot the softhearted suckers. But today I am silent. Mather shouts from his car seat but she ignores him too.
Her window is down before we’ve come to a complete stop. The man reaches into the cluster of dented white buckets at his corner-side stand, pulls free a few dripping-wet bouquets, then dodges traffic until he’s at Margaret’s side. He leans through the window, wearing a red and white checked kaffiyeh around his throat. Margaret’s wallet is on her lap, ready.
“Hello, baby!” the man shouts at Mather, avoiding looking at both of us women with our loose hair and bared elbows. His flowers are spread perfectly across his arm, inches from the very face he will not to peer into. The car fills with the scent of crushed rose petals, exhaust, and his sweat, a faint mix of onions and soil. I do not point out that most of his offerings are wilted, tinged with brown. I notice the cluster of pristine white blossoms at the same time Margaret does, fragile, lacy blooms on very green stems, and she nods toward them, holding up her money. It takes only seconds.
As he passes the chosen bouquet to Margaret through the window, Mather yells again from the backseat, wanting something; that child is always wanting something. The man turns to the baby but he doesn’t stop there; he lifts his face and stares behind our car, his brown eyes widening with fear as he stumbles backward. Before I can look around, there is a ripping scream of brakes and our car leaps forward with a thud of crushed metal. Our heads rock on our spines and there are flowers in flight across the dashboard, white blossoms spread open like tiny, reaching hands.

#confusionoflanguages

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The Words After War Interview with Siobhan Fallon by Michael Pitre

October 4th, 2015 — 1:31am

(This interview first ran on The Huffington Post Book Blog)

As part of Words After War’s September book club selection, Siobhan answers a few questions from Michael Pitre, author of Fives and Twenty-Fives.

Michael Pitre: You Know When the Men Are Gone was published a few months after I left the Marine Corps. My wife read it immediately, and showed me the scene from “Inside the Break” where Kailani finds a pamphlet of family reunion rules hidden among her husband’s equipment. The rules include, “Your family members are not your men; they don’t have to obey your orders,” and, “Do not engage in intercourse with your wife immediately upon your return.” My wife asked me if I remembered how many of those rules I’d broken when I came home, and we laughed because of course I’d broken all of them. So, having lived the experience, we found humor where others might’ve been dismayed. Do you think the book resonates differently with military families than with the general public? Which potential audience was more important to you when you were writing it?

Siobhan Fallon: Civilians always ask me if those pamphlets mentioned in that story are real! And of course they are, I used the one from my husband’s return from Afghanistan in 2005 as my template for the fictional version. If I remember correctly, it really did recommend, “Take time to be charming.”

There was so much I didn’t understand about the military even after I became a spouse. So yes, I hoped to show a glimpse of day to day military life to those who have never stepped inside our gates, to offer civilians more than the splashy headlines of deployments and homecomings.

As an officer’s wife, and especially as a Company Commander’s wife who led a Family Readiness Group, I was someone who was supposed to be capable and confident and I often found myself being a cheerleader. I was full of “You can do it!” or “Time will fly, before you know it your soldier will be home!” or, my least favorite, “It’s time to put on your big girl panties!” (OK, I never actually said that but I did have a magnet on my fridge that did).

None of those statements reflected the magnitude of shit spouses could go through with their mate halfway around the world when you need new tires for the car, when you, your three year old and your six month old all have strep throat and are awake at three a.m., when a tree falls on your roof during a storm, when you lost your husband’s dog, when you’re depressed and anxious and suddenly a stranger completely disconnected from your life wants to buy you a drink and that drink promises to give you a momentary escape. These are of course things that can happen to anyone, but the stress is heightened when every newspaper mentions dead soldiers in Iraq and you maybe haven’t heard from your soldier in four days, you’re in a new base far from family and friends, and on top of it all you’re thinking that to be a good wife and a patriot, you need to act like this is a breeze.

So more than thinking about ‘audience,’ I was hoping to be more authentic in my fiction than I could be as a living, speaking human being. I wrote the stories in an attempt to say yes, it’s actually OK to feel like this sometimes, the news programs are leaving so much out when they narrow military life into images of parades with heart swelling music, or even flag draped coffins. The fact that military life is so nuanced and weird, so potentially tragic as well as wonderful, is also why it’s fascinating to write about.

I was also writing while we were still there, boots on the ground, FOBs going full steam, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seeing the evidence of that in every house or apartment in Fort Hood that was missing a spouse or parent. It was happening around me, the seemingly unending deployment cycles of deploy a year, home a year, deploy again. I didn’t have any long view or hindsight yet, I had no idea we would withdraw troops out of Iraq in December, 2011. I was busy writing the now, that small window of 2007-2009, for whomever was willing to read it.

MP: There’s a real tension between the husbands and wives in your stories. Deployed soldiers are convinced that their wives are cheating, and don’t know how to relate to their wives when they finally come home. Wives have similar suspicions of infidelity, and grow bitter while stranded in the middle-of-nowhere Texas by their husband’s profession. You walk a tightrope between these two perspectives, and both sides get an equal hearing. How did you retain your neutrality during the writing process?

SF: Well, at times it did feel like a very black and white world, women on one side, men on the other. My husband was a company commander of an infantry unit (all male) and I was the Family Readiness Group leader of all those spouses (all women). More times than I could possible count, while he was either home or deployed to Iraq, we’d have a conversation or email dialogue where each of us had to advocate for the spouse of our own gender. I’d tell him the aggrieved wife’s side of things, and he’d come back at me with the soldier’s side. I’d like to think that some of those balancing acts surfaced in my stories.

MP: Speaking of tension between service members and spouses, I’m sure you’ve seen the bumper sticker around military installations with some version of the phrase, “Soldier’s Wife: Toughest Job in the Army.” I’ve heard young service members with extremely demanding and dangerous jobs express irritation at the sight of that bumper sticker. What would be your response to a young, unattached soldier who doesn’t yet understand the burden placed on military families?

SF: I can understand how that would make a young soldier, or any soldier/airman/Marine bristle. But that’s what slogans or bumper stickers or tweets do–find a glib way to express something has a lot more depth to it than a glance allows.

A spouse appreciates a sentiment like that not because her ‘job’ boils down to being more life threatening or specialized or physically taxing than her soldier’s. But it recognizes that there’s so much more to being a spouse than cashing your soldier’s check every month: being the one who stays and waits and manages to turn whatever quarters you are assigned into a real live home, being the one who picks up that home and takes it to the next place when the military member with the functioning career is stationed somewhere new every couple of years, being the one who usually does not get the certificates and medals and plaques, being the one who is there when the movers come, who is there with the kids every day when the soldier has a two week training exercise in the field. We are called ‘dependents’ in official military speak. There are plenty of successful men and women who would gladly depend on themselves but sometimes they chose to put their military member’s employment first, sometimes the demands of being a military spouse make it very difficult to maintain a stable career of their own.

So, yes, all you EOD techs getting blown up, you guys probably win. But mil spouses like to think that the work they are doing is valid, indispensible even, and that bumper sticker acknowledges that.

MP: “Remission,” is the story of a woman dealing with a rebellious teenage daughter and a possible cancer diagnosis, all while her husband is deployed. A good friend from my time in Iraq was the daughter of a colonel who got hooked on the family business and joined the Marines. She told me a story about how when she was a little girl her father deployed to Somali while her mother was battling cancer. The tone of her story was so casual, so matter of fact. Her childhood, harrowing in retrospect, seemed ordinary to her at the time. Her dad deployed, and there was no use dwelling on it. That was his job. Military reality can be harsh, but I’ve found very little bitterness among military families I’ve known. Why do you think military families are so loyal to the service? And what would you think if one of your children wanted to join the military?

SF: Military life takes a certain type of person, and well, I like that person. Obviously no stereotype is true of all people, but I usually feel comfortable with military spouses or members of the military, we ‘get’ each other on a different level, we have touchstones we can rely on, like comparing the bases/states/countries we’ve lived in or figuring out whose baby learned to talk or walk or read while their daddy/mother was deployed. The military community is made up of hardy folk; they can hold usually their liquor and are pretty proficient at profanity and gallows humor. But most of all there’s a sense of having lived through a very specific sort of fringe lifestyle, especially since September 11, and even if you’ve never met that person before you feel like you have shared something.

Do I want my two girls to join the military? I don’t know. I was there the day my husband graduated Ranger school. He had foot rot, could hardly look me in the eye because he was so socially retarded from being in a pack of filthy men, he was nothing but skin and cheek bones. If a woman can do that, then hell, she’s amazing, I hope she runs for President someday. But do I want my little Maeve or littler Evelyn to lose forty pounds and get recycled if she’s gets caught digging through a trash can for dinner? Not so much. Of course that’s the extreme. And I would probably feel the same way if I had a son. Worried, because that’s what a parent is supposed to feel about everything related to their kids. But I’d also be proud to have instilled a sense of service into a child, the way I’d be if one of my daughters decided to become a police officer or fire fighter, a social worker or a teacher. There are jobs that people do that serve a higher purpose than filling up a bank account, and I’d be pleased to have a child chose a path that puts others first.

MP: What are you working on now?

SF: A novel tentatively titled: The Confusing of Languages. It’s set in Jordan during the Arab Spring, and I turn to the embassy community in much the same way I turned to the military world in You Know When the Men Are Gone. Embassy culture is naturally diplomatic: on the one hand we are expected to embody American ideals, on the other we are meant to embrace the culture we find ourselves in. My novel revolves around two American couples, especially two female Army spouses who become fast friends. One wife embraces Jordanian culture while the one remains very firmly rooted in her idea of America, and the two outlooks and behavior collide. The word collision sums what I am trying to get at, the collision of American and Middle Eastern culture, the collision of very different personalities, the collision of female friendship vs. marital love, all with the Arab Spring unraveling in the background.

*****

Words After War is a nonprofit literary organization with a mission to bring veterans and civilians together to examine war and conflict through the lens of literature.

Follow Words After War on Twitter @WordsAfterWar
Follow Siobhan Fallon on Twitter @SiobhanMF
Michael Pitre doesn’t have Twitter, but for information about him or his terrific novel, Five and Twenty Fives, look here.

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Interviewing Jesse Goolsby

September 3rd, 2015 — 11:58pm

This Words After War interview first appeared on the Huffington Post Words After War Book Blog site.

Jesse Goolsby is the author of I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them, which has been hailed as “beautiful and brutal” (Janet Burroway), “a major literary event” (Robert Olen Butler), “a book about the human heart” (Brian Turner), “powerful” (Esquire), and “an earthquake-in-your-soul-novel” (Michael Garriga). Opening in Afghanistan, the book follows three U.S. soldiers as they return to their families in small towns across America. Births, deaths, marriages, friendships, and time pass, but the three men are forever connected by one dark moment.
Goolsby, a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and the University of Tennessee, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English at Florida State University and a U.S. Air Force officer. He is the recipient of the John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction, the Richard Bausch Fiction Prize, and an editor for The Southeast Review and War, Literature & the Arts.

Siobhan: One of the elements of your book that I find the most fascinating (and I have to credit the astute professor and war-lit blogger Peter Molin for pointing this out to me during a discussion of contemporary war literature) is how you’ve created a ‘long view’ of the ways combat affects your characters. So much of the recent writing about Iraq and Afghanistan focus on narrower margins of time, yet you grapple with years and years, examining how one event can ripple outward to affect spouses, sons and daughters, grandchildren. Did you set out with the goal of writing about the larger picture of America at war?

Jesse: I set out with the goal of investigating human yearning for connection, and everything flowed from there—the setting, structure, point of view, pace. Early on in the writing of the novel I knew that in order to appropriately showcase the depth and desire of the three protagonists I needed to follow them before, during, and long after their combat experience, to get to know them as human beings, not just as soldiers at conflict. I also needed to investigate their particular tastes (i.e. Metallica, 49ers, Rocky Mountains) as well as the bonds of family, friendship, and community.
All of those things opened up the scope of the book, in time frame (35 years), geography (across America and Afghanistan), and perspective, where we have chapters that follow Wintric, Armando, and Dax, but also spouses, children, and community members.
I think that this does create a type of long view, or at least a view where simple binaries of “healthy” vs. “damaged” or “hero” vs. “villain” are absent, and instead, we get to see all of these characters as human beings searching for connection and moments of repose.

Siobhan: You’ve spent some time teaching in the Department of English at the United States Air Force Academy, do you think you teach literature differently to these young men and women than you would their civilian counterparts?

Jesse: I’ve taught both academy cadets and civilian students, and I hope I bring the same passion and enthusiasm to the classroom in each environment. There has been nothing in my professional life more rewarding than challenging students with great literature, requiring them to investigate the range of their individual morality, beliefs, and aesthetic joy, and to absorb-consider-react to art like The Illiad, Antigone, Othello, Dracula, Catch-22, A Raisin in the Sun, Dispatches, Beloved, Never Let Me Go, etc. But I admit to answering the students’ questions of “Why does this matter?” slightly different in each setting, even though foundationally the answer focuses on living a life well. This is because of the stakes: our country asks our US Air Force Academy graduates to lead and make life or death decisions—in one way or another—to be culpable in the devastation of war. While investigating literature and art is imperative to every student, everywhere, it’s absolutely vital that our military members engage in lifelong empathy and critical thinking through the humanities.

Siobhan: What sort of reaction have you received from your fellow military peers? Particularly, have you had any push back about being an Air Force officer writing about Army infantry enlisted soldiers?

Jesse: The feedback from my military peers has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, all readers bring their particular sensibilities to the reading experience, so the responses have been as varied as the number of readers, which I love.
Many of the responses I’ve received focus on an appreciation that the soldiers and the families in the book are not stereotyped, that each character showcases individual and unique hopes, fears, dreams, and traumas. A few soldiers have joked about the fact that an Air Force officer would chose to write about soldiers, as opposed to fighter pilots or something, but I appreciate the minor ribbing from my brothers and sisters in arms.
My particular biography gets some attention, but it is largely ignored because readers are so smart. They know they are reading a novel, and they realize that fiction is appropriation. They don’t want me to only write about the experiences of a 6’4’’ big-nosed Air Force officer, or the Air Force, or war. And, bigger picture, we don’t want the limiting view of only the author’s self from any fiction writer. Fiction is inherently about imagination and creation and lives that are not our own.

Jesse's less serious side: tearing up the dance floor with fellow writer and Air Force pal, James Moad, at AWP2015, MN.

Siobhan: Do you think there is a particular direction current writings on conflict ought to take or areas the military writing community could look at more closely? And are there any exciting new books or writers you’d like to mention?

Jesse: I love the fact that writers get to follow their creative impulses wherever they lead, so I’m not much for prescribing direction, but I would love to read more fiction that deals with the consequences of conflict that showcase female protagonists. Off the top of my head, your wonderful book does this, Sara Novic’s Girl at War is another great one, and O.A. Lindsey has a novel on the way that will also help answer this call.
And wow, there are so many exciting books out! I’ve been on a roll with great reads lately. Each of these have blown me away and I encourage folks to seek them out:
The Grief Muscles by Brandon Courtney (Poetry)
The Evil Hours by David J. Morris (Nonfiction)
The Animals by Christian Kiefer (Fiction)
Demon Camp by Jen Percy (Nonfiction)
The Longest Night by Andria Williams (Fiction, out in Jan. 2016)

Siobhan: What are you working at now?

Jesse: I’m at work on a novel, tentatively titled Derrin of the North that will come out with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017. I’m also in the final year of my PhD in English at Florida State University, and working on my dissertation. Most important, I have a family with three young kids, so I forecast a role of soccer and T-ball coach, and cannon-balling dad at the local pool.

For Jesse’s upcoming events and more information, please take a look at his author website at http://jessegoolsby.com/
For more on Words After War, please see http://wordsafterwar.org/
Also see Peter Molin’s very astute blog about literature and art relating to war at http://acolytesofwar.com/

Thanks for reading!

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The Face of Memorial Day

May 24th, 2015 — 10:01am

As Memorial Day approaches, I keep thinking of a young man I met in March 2012 during a book event at the Walter Reed National Military Hospital in Bethesda: Sergeant Derek McConnell. I spoke with many devastatingly young men and women that day, in wheelchairs, with crutches or canes, with scars and burns.

I remembered Derek because of his broad shoulders and fresh, baby face, as well as his mother who shared my first name, another Siobhan who lived with a lifetime of mispronunciation.

Derek had ‘the map of Ireland on his face’—red haired, fair skinned, smattering of freckles, a mischievous look in his eyes. On July 23, 2011, on patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Derek was struck by an improvised explosive device while trying to rescue a fellow soldier. He lost his left leg from the hip and the right leg just above the knee and received blast wounds, including a fractured right arm, a skull fracture and kidney damage.

A year and a half later, while I was chatting with his mother, Siobhan Mary Fuller, he was doing wheelies in his wheelchair and joking around with his glossy-haired fiancé in the hospital foyer. His mom told me a little about Derek’s ongoing recovery, the thirty-three surgeries, transfusions, dialysis.

His vitality and pluck stayed with me, but I was haunted by this other Siobhan, this woman about my age, her ready smile and capable attitude. From New Jersey, she had moved to Maryland and utterly dedicated herself to her son’s recovery. I was pregnant at the time with a four year old at home, and I couldn’t imagine finally handing a child over to adulthood, having vigilantly gotten him that far, safe and whole, and then to have him return to me wounded, missing limbs, needing to learn to walk again.

On March 18, 2013, scanning my Facebook feed, I read that Derek had died at Walter Reed. The young man who had fought again and again couldn’t fight the impossible odds anymore.

And then there is one of my husband’s closest friends, Captain KJ Smith, who my husband has known since he was fourteen.

I remember meeting KJ while bartending one very busy night at my father’s Irish pub. He was off to the side, waiting patiently as thirsty customers waved money in the air and I slung pints and brimming wine glasses. He stood above everyone else, exuding the contained physical power of a star athlete, with thick black eyebrows and eyes wide with kindness when we finally shook hands.

KJ had given up soccer scholarships to go to West Point and worked doggedly to join that long gray line. He was planning to propose to his girlfriend on mid-tour leave when he died in Baghdad on December 8, 2005, his humvee hit by an IED.

When I see the Memorial Day photos of Arlington, row upon row of engraved names, I know those simple white markers and small fluttering American flags represent the entire lives of men and women like Derek McConnell and KJ Smith. Young, healthy, strong, willing to go places most of us don’t even Google. They are the boys running across a soccer field, the kid bagging your groceries, the high-schooler getting straight As in science, the girls playing varsity volleyball, every one of them somebody’s child who had an entire life of promise ahead. They are our own children in a couple of years.

Please remember them this Memorial Day.

To read my March 12 blog about meeting some of the young military men and women at Walter Reed please go to: http://siobhanfallon.com/blog/?m=201203

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AWP 2015

April 10th, 2015 — 12:26pm

Well, I was scolded for not taking better care of my blog by fellow mil spouse author Andria Williams last night (she said something along the lines of being sick of my ‘camel kissing’ photo from a past blog), so I’ve decided to quickly post before she beats me to it (take that, Andria!).

I’m warning you right now that this will be mostly a big gush. I’m so happy. I got off the plane Wednesday afternoon and just started smiling my face off and saying hello to everyone, and you know what? everyone smiled and said hello back!! People are friendly in Abu Dhabi, but I have missed looking total strangers in the eye, women and men (hurray, I can be friendly to men and not worry they will think I’m trying to seduce them!). I love America. I love the older man security guard here at the Hilton who started chatting with me when I was putting sugar in my coffee. The homeless man playing a little drum on the corner who said God Bless you when I gave him a dollar (though I was shocked to see homeless people again. No stray cats like the Middle East, but lots and lots of homeless people). The super friendly staff at Target (TARGET!!!) who chatted on and on about how nice my scarf was.

I am not the least bit jet lagged.

I mentioned this to Benjamin Busch last night at the Sierra Nevada College Reception and he claimed it was the air here, more oxygen, good for working out, but I’m convinced it’s just because I am in America.

The above ROCKED their panel, Women Writing War, with Andria Williams, Jehanne Dubrow, Emily Tedrowe, Katey Schultz.
I highly recommend everyone check out these authors’ varied and amazing work, I sat there jotting down notes from all of them (and feeling oddly, but nicely, uncomfortable, when Andria read a scene from one of my stories– people actually laughed where they were supposed to laugh). I was moved by line after exquisite line of Jehanne’s poetry (short excerpt below), by Emily Tedrowe’s heartfelt tackling of issues of authority and writing “credentials,” by Andria’s vast understanding of mil spouse literature, and Katey Schultz’s assertion that, though she’s not married to the military or a veteran herself, she was compelled to write about our wars out of “civic duty.”

I was on a panel, No Country for Good Old Boys: The Remaking of the Masculine in Contemporary American Fiction with heavy hitters Shann Ray, Kim Barnes, Alan Heathcock, Ben Percy. I’m kicking myself for not getting a photo, what a crew. I’d also like to quote our pre-panel discussion but I am afraid my mom might read this, particularly the comments about the appendages some of the above claim to write with… ahem, Ben Percy). They all have something in the pipeline, Percy’s newest novel, The Dead Lands, comes out next week.

Well, #AWP2015 is young, there is much ahead, I’m going to keep breathing this intoxicating American air and smiling my face off at every inspiring person I meet, writer or man playing drums!

P.S. If you are here at #AWP15, check out this kick*ss panel tomorrow, Saturday, 1:30-2:45, Telling Our New War Stories: Witness and Imagination Across Literary Genres, with Benjamin Busch, Phil Klay, Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, and me…

excerpt from Jehanne Dubrow’s work (from the online site Project Muse):

He brings me chocolate from the Pentagon,
dark chocolates shaped like tanks and fighter jets,
milk chocolate Tomahawks, a bonbon
like a kirsch grenade, mint chocolate bayonets.
He brings me chocolate ships, a submarine
descending in a chocolate sea, a drone
unmanned and filled with hazelnut praline.
He brings me cocoa powder, like chocolate blown
to bits. Or chocolate squares of pepper heat.
Or if perhaps we’ve fought, he brings a box
of truffles home, missiles of semisweet
dissolving on the tongue. He brings me Glocks
and chocolate mines, a tiny transport plane,
a bomb that looks delicious in its cellophane.

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FORT BLISS

January 8th, 2015 — 5:28am

Nearly every time I gave a reading or discussion about You Know When the Men Are Gone, someone would inevitably ask me why I hadn’t written a story from a female soldier’s point of view. I just didn’t have the insight or the story to tell, I’d reply, a little ashamed of my lack of imagination. So as soon as I finished watching the powerful FORT BLISS, I wanted to reach across cyber-space, find all those people, and tell them to watch this film.
FORT BLISS is the story of a female medic who returns to Texas after a deployment and tries to salvage her strained relationship with her young son. The movie viscerally sums up everything I hoped to cram into my stories, that razor-edged tight rope walk of being part of the military community, either as service member or family member, during this prolonged period of war. It strikes the right note about deployment vs. home front, duty toward country vs. duty toward family, and everything in between, without getting clouded by politics or headlines. FORT BLISS is one of the most authentic pieces of art I’ve watched or read about our current military situation. Bravo to actress Michelle Monaghan and director Claudia Myers and everyone else who made this film happen.
This Army spouse is recommending it to everyone she knows.
Last I checked it was streaming on Netflix so everyone please take a look soon…

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Camel Kissing

January 30th, 2014 — 2:35am

I might be making some poor decisions in an effort to not seem like an ‘ugly American.’ It’s just really difficult to decide what is an accepted cultural norm and what is just plain-out-of-line. Like when my family and I went to the camel market in Al Ain. Maybe I shouldn’t have just giggled uncomfortably when a fifty year old Pakistani man tried to kiss my six year old daughter on the mouth. Hmmm.

I better start off by describing the camel yard. All the guidebooks claimed it was the last of its kind and something we should not miss. So, after two days of Al Ain’s forts, mountain passes, and an amusement park (Hilli Fun City, oldest amusement park in the Gulf! Ride a roller coaster that’s almost as old as the UAE! Yeah!!), we drove through warehouse area after dodgy warehouse area at sunset, with KC determined to find this fabled tourist site.

We smelled it before we found it. Pen after pen with lots of camels inside, exactly as you’d expect, if you are actually expecting to find something as odd as a camel market.
We parked our shiny white Volvo SUV behind a closed up feed store and we stuffed our youngest into a backpack contraption that KC swung over his shoulders.

There was not one other non-camel herd person there until a car full of German-looking people passed by slowly (fair haired with square, wire rimmed glasses, definitely European).

“Oh, phew, we’re not the only tourists,” I said to my husband. I wanted to wave at them, Look at us! We read our guide book too! They stopped in the road just ahead. The women in the passenger seat glanced at us, at the camels, then back at us. She said something low to the driver and they did a U-turn and drove away. Quickly.

That’s when KC suggested I take the scarf off my neck and wrap it around my head.
That’s when I should have decided to get back in the car and demand my husband take us back to our nice hotel. Instead I covered up my blondish locks and held tight to my kiddo’s hand. I’ve found that, here in the Middle East, holding on to a child always helps ease potentially uncomfortable situations, giving me the appearance of virtuous mother rather than wanton great devil whore of USA (yes, I have an overactive imagination).

We were immediately accosted by a man telling us that he had every camel conceivable, big camel, white camel, baby camel. KC began chatting with the gentleman, who said he was from the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as he led us deeper and deeper into the pens, farther and farther from our first world Volvo. He offered to take photos of us with his camels, and we said yes.

Every few steps, a young man would peel off from some dark corner and start following us. They were all wearing long knee-length shirts and loose pants in tones of brown, some with black and white checked scarves tied around their necks. KC greeted each; all of them seemed to be from the very place in Afghanistan where he and his infantry company had been searching for Osama Bin Laden in 2004. I couldn’t believe that he was telling these guys that yes, he knew Paktika, why, he had spent a year of his life there! Imagine that! In my mind, my husband looks every bit the Army officer he is. I also didn’t hear him say that he’d been a part of an “NGO” rather than a trigger-finger part of drone-dropping America. So when they started asking for money, I wanted to toss them a wallet and run, assuming there’d be an AK behind that grizzled so-called baby camel. Not KC.

By now we had accumulated about ten men and could no longer see the road. All of them asking for cash. KC gave the guy who took the pictures the 25 AED he had set aside for that very purpose, less than eight dollars, and then amiably shook hands with the others. Not happy with the amount, the man kneeled in front of us, grinned, and tried to plant one my eldest daughter. Who, playing it much better than her mother, smoothly ducked out of the way of the offending mustache and made a face that clearly said kissing was just plain gross.

I managed a pathetic: “Ha, ha, how about a high five?”

High fives seem to be the intimacy substitute of choice. Whenever a stranger gets too close– cheek pinching, bear hugging, random tickling, hair mussing (and then there was that time in Jordan when a guy picked Maeve out of KC’s arms and started throwing her up in the air as she screamed)– I have instructed my daughter to offer a high five. This time I understood we were outnumbered, realizing that whatever Ranger School moves KC remembered, he would not be his fighting-best with a baby strapped to his back, but thank God I was wearing cowboy boots and I was fairly certain I could gouge some eyes if need be (my Irish father didn’t show me how to beat the hell out of that punching bag in the basement for nothing).

Meanwhile Maeve coolly lifted a hand and slapped a sound high five on the man’s palm.
“Ok!” he shouted and stood. KC looked at me. I grabbed Maeve’s hand and started walking with husband bringing up the rear.

That was it. No one followed us. The sun kept setting. The camels kept making the strange noises camels make.

I didn’t take the scarf off my hair until I was inside our car and the camel market was in the rear view window.

Then we gave our six year old a long talk. High fives good. Kissing bad. And no kissing on the lips until she gets married.

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