My First Cigar

PREFACE: I have never smoked a thing in my life. D.A.R.E ingrained in me a hatred for drugs of all sorts, and then a health class video about smoking put me off the idea of smoking forever. A man was holding a hospital dish, and with a gloved hand was gently pulling up strings of sticky phlegm while saying ,“This is what lives in your lungs when you smoke.” I almost vomited – it’s an image that has stuck with me for the past fifteen years. 


Was in Pensacola for the 100th anniversary of Naval Aviation.

It was a memorable connecting flight for a couple of reasons. First, because we were running a few minutes behind schedule, the pilot promised to “fly it like he stole it.” This, I thought, was both reassuring and terrifying, as I already get nervous on planes, and felt no desire to see if he could bend the MD-90 to shave off a few minutes on the already brief flight.

The second reason was more sobering – I’d never seen a military casket in person. The pilot announced that we were returning a soldier, and that there would probably be a slight delay once we landed to accommodate the ceremony and to let the soldier’s family off the plane first. I noted several slumped shoulders at the announcement, which irked me. I will not pass judgment because it’s entirely possible the shoulder slumpers were depressed by the sobering reality of what war costs individual families. My uncharitable side believes they slumped at the idea of something getting in the way of their disembarking.

When we landed, the passengers started taking pictures of the casket as it was brought out, and of the soldiers waiting to carry it to the hearse. I don’t know how I feel about this. Part of me wanted to take pictures as well, since it was a ceremony one does not see everyday. Part of me felt it was disrespectful to take pictures at someone else’s funeral, just because it was fancier.

Do you get to photograph the grief of strangers, because the service rendered was to everyone?

Do you get to photograph the grief of strangers, because the service rendered was to everyone?

What do you think?

The air show was fun. I have been going to airshows all my life – it comes with being raised by a military pilot. I’ve seen more fighter planes and helicopters than most I’d bet, and heard stories to go along with them all.

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There is something breathtaking and arousing about airplanes. Even though I get nervous flying, I could watch fighter pilots twist around the sky all day. I did, in fact, watch fighter pilots twist around the sky all day. The only strange point was a stunt helicopter done up with a face on the front – Autopilot. He was a little dopey, playing with a giant yo-yo and blowing balloon bubbles. There was a glider plane with a jet attached (“So…a plane,” my brother mused), which we were all prepared to tease until it started gracefully looping through the sky to classical music, making calligraphy-like loops behind it.

Music is another thing that makes an air show fun. Military air shows know how to build a soundtrack, and sponsored planes have their own musical scores and movie nods. A clunky WWII cargo plane flew while “Pink Elephants on Parade” blared from the loud speaker. My family debated what our soundtracks would be if we flew. For example, my brother said his hole show would go to the soundtrack of “Footloose,” with “Top Gun” interludes.  I will say the F-35 presentation was disappointing, as they did two fly-bys and left. I’m not a huge F-35 advocate. I think the F-22A is perhaps the sexiest plane ever made.

*drool – if only this beauty had been in Pensacola….*

The air show’s zenith were the Blue Angels. Flying F/A-18s and performing precision maneuvers, there is nothing like them. The Thunderbirds are glorious, but the Angels have a frightening margin of error within which they perform. There is only 18 inches of space between planes in tight formation, which is terrifying when you consider how large the airplane is. I’m not sure everyday people could maintain a tight 18 inch proximity while performing choreography.

The best part was when, after a beautiful diamond roll, the announcer told the audience to keep watching the group. Obediently, the audience obliged, providing the number 5 plane to do a low, fast pass. The gasps were audible, followed by laughter. It’s amazing – all these veterans know the pass is coming, and yet we’re all still startled by it. Wonderful, how people can let joy in.

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After dinner that night, my brother asked me to share a cigar with him. He’s big into cigars now that he’s in the Army. Dad was big into cigars when he was a Marine. Cigars and my family seem to go hand in hand.

I thought about it – I’ve deflected offers throughout my life with enough ease that it never really occurred to me that I didn’t know what I was saying no to. After enough time, saying no is like saying you don’t eat meat, I imagine – it becomes a part of your character. And here was my brother asking, and I decided that yes, I would join him.

So there we were in the unfortunately chilly air of a Florida autumn, sipping whiskey and smoking cigars. I hate to be so pedestrian about the smoking experience, but given all the hype about tobacco I was really hoping for more oomph. I inhaled and exhaled and smoked away, and all I could think was “This is it? You’re just sucking smoke into your lungs?” I did relax more as the night wore on, but I imagine that was the quality whiskey as much as the cigar.

The conversation was good – my brother and I got into a intricate debate about U.S. Foreign Policy. West Point vs. University of Chicago. Military vs. Politics. Realism vs. Pragmatic Optimism – this last one was a fluke. UChicago is home to some of the most renowned Realist scholars – Morgenthau, Mearsheimer, etc. I was supposed to be the realist, except that my Christian Humanist teaching also makes me a moralist, and thus I think more of an optimist. I feel as though I was clear winner of the debate, but my brother put forth some good points too, and I wouldn’t want him to think I didn’t respect his (loser) point of view.

Dad just listened – later, he said he was proud of both of us. I wonder how he had the patience to listen to his eldest and youngest children hash out military doctrine for three hours…perhaps his cigar was stronger.

I woke up with a mouth tasting like an ashbin. This taste stuck around for two days, despite brushing my teeth several times and eating what I thought would be “absorbing “ foods. Still, I’m glad I did it. My first smoke at the age of 31 – never stop growing and experiencing!

(Having just typed that, I would say you can skip smoking. It really is just putting smoke in your mouth and blowing it out again. It does make you feel more relaxed, but really, if you’re not smoking you’re not missing much…You’re welcome, TRUTH movement.)

Update: Mearsheimer went to West Point? No wonder the overlap!

There I was, inverted over Hanoi...

There I was, inverted over Hanoi…

Shameless Product Placement

Since I’ve been back, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the items I took with me to China which really helped me. Here are some of the products which I think lived up to their names/functions, and which I would recommend picking up if you’re planning on traveling where the environment is challenging. These are products I picked up before going to China. There were goods I bought there which I’m glad I waited to buy – like my walking stick.  There were things I already had (solid walking shoes, multifunctional clothing).

I used Magellan’s to buy several of my products, however their website is down while they switch ownership. TravelSmith is good, but I find them a little overpriced and their goods are catered towards the fancier people. Amazon is Amazon (all hail…) and you can find most of this stuff there as well.

  1. Go Girl

Go Girl

The Go Girl allows women to pee standing up. It’s a flexible silicon tube. It’s great if there is no functioning toilet around you, yet there is still a “bathroom.” This would also work well if you are going camping and have absolutely no bathroom or comfortable squatting area. Make sure that you bring a ziplock bag for it, though being made of silicon it is easy to clean. Note that the packaging suggests you can carry it in the tube in the provided bag. This is true, and is what I did, but I have the feeling that over time the carton could get damaged.

It’s available at Amazon here.

  1. I can breathe! Mask

I can Breathe

I originally found this on Magellan’s, however at one point they stopped selling the mask – though they still carried the refills. Amazon does carry the brand, though my plain mesh mask is not on the list. You can also go straight to the source and look for the ACF Pollution Mask / Honeycomb mask. Simply put, after my first month in China not wearing the mask my chest started to ache. I thought I was dying somehow (see my “Middlechondriac” post), and my brother pointed out that I was knowingly breathing bad air. So I started wearing my mask, and after an additional week of hacking up sticky phlegm, my chest stopped aching. I attribute that to my mask.

It’s a straightforward deal – there is a charcoal filter which velcros inside the mesh mask. I could not wear my glasses and visor at the same time when riding my scooter, due to the fogging. If you are going somewhere which has air quality issues, buy a mask. Skip the fancy colors and patterns unless you are worried about being judged for a lack of pollution fashion sense.

3. Converter Kit Part 1


Don’t skimp on this – buy a decent set. Mine is from TravelSmith and it worked wonderfully. The big point with this is to monitor the lights on top – they’ll blink furiously if the power is wonky. And a nice box like this means you can easily organize the plugs, and you’ll know when you don’t have one. Plus, they work all over the world. I prefer to travel with a converter kit as well as a few extra adaptor plugs, for any dual-wattage appliances I have. I needed the converter to charge my e-reader, but my PS3 only needed an adaptor.

Look ahead of time for the wattage of your travel destination. And don’t leave things plugged in too long – I fried my converter in Spain because it was an old house and I was charging a laptop for too long.

4. Converter Kit Part 2 – PlugBug for Mac

The PlugBug

While getting my laptop updated (before I spilt tea on it one month later, essentially wasting a hundred dollars), I mentioned I was going abroad to China, and the helpful Apple salesman suggested a PlugBug.

Though I only used it a month, I highly recommend it. If you are taking an Apple product abroad, buy a PlugBug world. There is a fantastic built in USB port built into the adaptor, so  you can charge your laptop and a separate Apple product at the same time (instead of having to plug everything into the computer itself). It is a little pricey for a single brand product, but given the prices of Apple products, a little extra insurance feels warranted.

5. Blister Bandaids 


Blisters are the worst. Let’s all agree on this point – blisters are awful. You with me? Good.

I will sing the praises of these bandaids to the rooftops. I will write sonnets to these bandaids. I hike a lot, and China provided me plenty of opportunities to climb. These bandaids saved me from blisters. They’re waterproof so they won’t wash or sweat off. They have medicine in them to treat the blister while you walk. They’re gel-like and cushioned, so you don’t feel any extra rubbing on the affected area. Best of all, they’re inexpensive and you can buy them in any drugstore. Oh, and did I mention that they have a great shape which better contours to toes and fingers? Because they do. They’re magic.

If you plan on hoofing it in Paris, hiking in China, or just walking around Chicago in heels for a night of microbrews, put one or two of these in your purse/satchel, and walk in confidence.



Placebo or not, I bought a bulk container at Costco (3 tubes), and took it regularly. I felt like it worked as a Vitamin C supplement at least, because fresh fruit and vegetables were difficult to find, at least at first. Also, I was told to avoid a great deal of fresh produce if I did not wash it myself in purified/distilled water. A supplement, either through something like Airborne, or a multivitamin, will help you get those immune boosters and vitamins you might miss when being over careful on diet.


That’s about it. I had other things, but these were the ones which I used most often. For example, I had water purification tablets, but I did not use them because bottled water was so prevalent. Had I done more trekking/rural tours, I would have used the tablets and drops.

I took hand sanitizer, and a couple of packets of those disinfecting wipes. Kleenex was available there, as were most of those minor drugstore things.

These are the products I am glad I had with me. I couldn’t afford to buy the fancy items I would have wanted, like a fancy solar charger. I didn’t get germ purification systems or all those awesome little goods that you don’t need but make you feel like you are super prepared. I was going on a relative budget, and I had to be mindful of the long term needs of living abroad. If you’re going to be abroad for a long time, you have to expect to adapt.

I think that’s all for now!