I Wrote This for a Grad School Creative Writing Exercise. The Entire Class Ended up Falling out of Their Chairs Laughing.

Quickly: the setup. Our CW professor told the class to write a couple pages entailing a fictional character professing their love for something, and diving deeply into why they love it so much. Ideally: “I love it when it rains at night without warning. Something about the gentle reminder that outside of ourselves…” Something like that. I wrote this. We all ended up passing our stories around to everyone else. One by one, just about every member of the class ended up laughing so hard, a few tipped over in their chairs. And every time, it was when they had my story in their hands:

Update: I designed a Why Choos Choos are the best t-shirt. (I can’t believe I’ve learned to do this now.) It’s in our Etsy FunnyDripDrop Shop with other funny shirts, and abour 110 more designs planned.


My first experience with choo choos came at an early age. Back then my family and I lived in a suburb of Chicago. One afternoon my mother and father wanted to take my brother and me to the city to a festival with food and music that was very good.

“Say gang, let’s all motor downtown,” my father said.

“Oh shove it along, Daddy,” my mother said. “You know we’ll end up tight, and then motoring won’t be safe. We should take the train. And Jason has never been on the choo choo before. Why, isnt’t that right, Jason?”

Mother and Father

It was true, I had never been on the choo choo. And so we took the choo choo. I remember the man on the choo choo who punched the tickets, the conductor, was very nice to me. It has been many years since that day, but I still remember him. He was a very tall and handsome man with a blue hat and a good smile. I remember he gave me a small model version of a choo choo. I was very happy and I still have it today. My first thought on the choo choo was, “This thing is not moving, this is dull,” but then my father said “Here we go!” and the trees and the telephone poles began moving past the window. My mother said “Chooo, chooo!” and then we were going very fast. I laughed and put my face to the window to watch everything going so fast, and I was not scared at all. I was happy and did not want the choo choo ride to ever end. In fact, I remember that I was sad when we got downtown because I wanted the choo choo to keep going somewhere, far past the city, so that I could stay on the choo choo for many days.

Ever since then I have loved choo choos. The reasons that I have continued to love choo choos have changed over the years, but the one thing that does not change is that I love them. They are called “trains” by most adults but I still call them choo choos. At first I was stubborn in calling them “choo choos” only because I thought it sounded good, much better than “train,” since “train” is not at all the sound that they make. Recently I was calling them “choo choos” because it made my college friends laugh. But now as I write this sentence I think that I call them “choo choos” because it is what my heart tells me is true.

There are many reasons why choo choos are still the best, even today, so long after that afternoon. You do not have to be a child to think choo choos are the best, or have a good experience in the past that makes you think they are so.

First, choo choos are better for the world. Studies show that automobiles are bad for the air and that we cannot keep using them without the land becoming one where we live only to pillage and hunt one another. I have seen places in Asia and Europe where choo choos are used more often. Sometimes they go faster than America’s choo choos. I think America is a good country, but when riding a high-speed choo choo from Madrid to Barcelona it is not hard to think that other countries are better.

Second, choo choos are safer than automobiles and jogging, because when you motor there is a good chance that you will be killed by another automobile, and when you jog to get from one place to another, there is a good chance that you will be hit by one or many automobiles, but on a choo choo there is no danger of being killed by any automobiles at all. A choo choo will defeat an automobile every time, and a person jogging on account of a choo choo is always going to be jogging very fast either from it, so as to survive, or toward it, so as to jump on it and hide inside of it.

This is why choo choos are the best and how I came to know it.

I’ve lived in Colombia for 6 years. This is the view from my balcony every morning. Now, a hard confession to make…


I was supposed to leave Colombia 3 years ago, but the pandemic stopped me. I became trapped in Colombia, which, as you can imagine, was fine by me. Medellin has the nicest people, perfect weather all year round, currency that makes a meager US income a person of wealth, and, honestly, some of the most beautiful women in the world.

Now I am going to type something I have been despairing over, in terms of whether or not I should do it. While we were locked down, I became addicted to codeine, little by little, at first as a way to help me power through my boring job, then as a sort of replacement for beer. I would have a six pack of codeine in the fridge everyday, the same way one would have a sixer of beer. Little did I know, the beginning of the end of my life, as I had known it, was upon me.

In addition to this, I had attained, several years prior, a book deal with Random House, for an autobiography. I failed to deliver it, and simply stopped all communication with them. I still owe them a sizeable advance, which I burned through during 2 years of self demolishing Medellin super models and cocaine partying. I ruined my chance to be an author, for many complex reasons I am writing about in my current, and likely, final autobiography.

The liquid codeine ended up hurting my body so badly that I could only pee sitting down, and had to do so every 20 minutes all night long. I took to peeing in empty detergent bottles bedside. I had to scream, so hard did I need to strain to get what would turn out to be only a trickle of urine, which seemed to relieve me, until 20 minutes later, when I was awoken again by the pressing need to urinate, and had to do it all over again.

This could not go on, or I would off myself within a few months of this nonstop hell. I also soon came to find out what happened if I went a night without codeine: the worst imaginable withdrawal. So terrible, heart racingly, suicide-inducing, that I will leave any attempt at a full description of how bad the hellfire, I had dubbed it, was. I went to a toxicolologist here, desperate and crying. She prescribed me methadone, in this nonstop, fatal, comedy of errors which, it turned out, I could get from any of the pharmacies on my block here, under the counter, or delivered to my front door. Every prescription drug on earth, every opiate, benzo– anything you can imagine, vicodin, morphine, methadone, oxycontin– can be easily delivered to your front door by a corrupt pharmacist.

So now, I am addicted to methadone– what is supposed to be the drug that helps opiate abusers– essentially, I am hooked on synthetic heroin. It is harder than heroin to quit, due to its long half life. Every morning is hell, a dark swirl of suicidal thoughts and regrets and the certainty that nothing remains me for, now that I have ruined everything, here at the age of 41. I will stop typing for now. Getting this out and pressing publish was hard enough. For more backstory on me, to get an idea as to how the book deal happened and what I was before all this, read my Wikipedia page (no, I didn’t make it. I was shocked to discover it myself). I will continue to document my struggles, which I am sure wil not end well, almost certain, if there is an audience for it. I am living in hell, I do not feel ready to go back to the U.S., largely because I have almost no family or friends to go to, and although methadone is bad, I fear the most what would happen if, in a state of devastating withdrawal/hellfire, I bought fentanyl off the streets of Chicago, or even heroin, along with a needle. I am living in hell, surrounded by paradise. I would amputate my right arm to go back in time…how I would…

And yes, I’m sure the job offers will come pounding on my door, now. I have given up the button-up writer for hire thing, as you can tell, and am giving you the real. Now…publish…god help me…

A Thing I Published #22: Vanity Fair

Writing for Vanity Fair was pleasant. Very nice editor, smooth process. So smooth I no longer even remember any of it, to be honest. But now that I just read this again, I realize I was writing about the potential of viruses breaking out at airports and measures to stop them. In 2014. I believe I was right: they were searching for symptoms of Ebola, with largely useless tactics, which is a completely different ballgame from COVID. Anyway, here goes another blast from the past.



OCTOBER 31, 2014

On Monday, New Jersey governor Chris Christie defended his decision to detain health-care worker Kaci Hickox under a New Jersey Ebola quarantine policy similar to ones adopted by several states with this cheerful quote: “Any of us have seen people who are traveling and they’ve been stopped, whether they are late for a plane or whatever they are doing, they get upset and angry. That’s fine. I have absolutely nothing but good will for [Hickox] going forward. She’s a good person and went over and was doing good work over in West Africa.”

For six years, I was one of the Transportation Security Administration agents who stopped airline passengers at checkpoints, regularly making them both upset and angry. Often, as Christie suggested, they were late for their planes. Usually, I was stopping them from doing important things for very stupid, federally mandated reasons. For instance, over the course of my duty I sometimes had to look airline pilots in the eye and tell them, with a straight face, that it was necessary to confiscate items from their carry-ons due to the possibility that the items could potentially be used to hijack their own planes. I did this supposedly in the interest of the safety of the American public. After such confiscations, I used to turn to my fellow T.S.A. agents and speculate about the chances the pilot would swing the plane around and crash it into the airport for revenge.

The nail-clipper confiscations, as with most official actions on airport checkpoints, were security theater, much like the quarantine measures that health-care workers such as Hickox are now being subjected to at some entry points around the United States.

If I were a federal agent at a U.S. airport tasked with enforcing some of the recently implemented policies that travelers arriving from Ebola hot zones be checked for Ebola-like symptoms, the first thing I would wonder is if my job even made any sense. We know that Ebola is not terribly contagious until the patient is quite ill. A passenger like Thomas Eric Duncan, who flew to Dallas with Ebola incubating in his body and lied about his close contact with a dying Ebola patient just days before, could not have been singled out by any kind of Ebola spot-check: the infected exhibit virtually no symptoms when the virus is incubating. In yet another example of an airport security measure straight out of Catch-22,the fact of the matter is that a traveler carrying the Ebola virus in its early stages cannot be identified by superficial security checks (and is not much of a threat to the general population), while a person carrying the Ebola virus in its advanced, contagious stage can be detected by travel security checkpoints (but is often too sick to travel anyway).

All of this would perhaps be less absurd if the tools with which officials were attempting to detect the virus at airports weren’t completely useless. Much like the largely ineffective full-body scanners we employ at T.S.A. to attempt to detect concealed weapons on passengers, finding incubation-stage Ebola in a crowded airport amounts to a taxpayer-funded search for fleas conducted through a shattered magnifying glass.

The thermal no-contact fever detectors in place at a lot of airports report an alarmingly number of false positives, as one 2011 scientific study reported. The scanners do not measure body core temperature, the essential indicator of a febrile response to infectious disease; rather, they detect skin-surface temperature, which can change based on many factors unrelated to illness such as sunburn, room temperature, and even emotional states, as an enraged Hickox claimed when her skin temperature reportedly rose, right along with her temper, as the wheels of bureaucracy creaked into motion and deposited her into a quarantine. Back in 2010, we at the T.S.A. quietly used thermal imagers on crowds at O’Hare airport. Agents I spoke to who were in charge of running the scanners at the time used to say that thermal-imaging duty was a joke: they claimed the technology was so poor as to make it all but a complete waste of time.

Governments have tried in the past to utilize airport security as a means by which to contain viral outbreaks, and we have studies to prove how ineffective those efforts were. A 2003 Canadian report on the SARS outbreak and the accompanying airport-screening measures put in place to stop the contagion showed that the extra security didn’t detect a single case of the virus. At best, the Ebola spot-check would work if all passengers behaved honestly at all times. As soon as someone hides or chooses to opt-out of disclosing the fact that he or she was recently in the vicinity of a potentially Ebola-infected area or person, the integrity of the security system collapses (fevers controlled through the use of medication could similarly foil these efforts). In essence, Ebola interrogations amount to a new iteration of, “Did you pack your own bags? And have you been in possession of your bags at all times?,” asked of passengers by airline security since the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. No one is likely to want to admit to having been near an Ebola hot zone at an airport security checkpoint knowing that such a disclosure might lead to a three-week quarantine. The only thing that such honor-system questioning really accomplishes is hassling people and causing delays.

And the biggest problem with quarantine measures, like the grandma and grandpa full-body pat-downs mindlessly administered day in and day out by the T.S.A., is that we are hassling and delaying precisely the wrong people. The one problem I’ve always had with the term “security theater” is the connotation of playhouse harmlessness. We all have to put up with a little annoying bureaucracy in times of national danger. So goes the typical rationalization offered by politicians. But, as any cost-benefit analyst will tell you, the bureaucratic tangles that result from such security theater can have very real, even deadly effects.

study in Applied Economics on the unintended consequences of post-9/11 airport security found that the substitution of driving for flying by those seeking to avoid the ever-increasing security inconveniences likely resulted in more than 2,000 road fatalities from 2001 to 2005. Senseless attempts to make air travel safer by confiscating the carry-on items and bottled water only gave people incentive to road-trip to their destinations, greatly increasing their chances of death. Security theater isn’t just some harmless bureaucratic placebo and fact of modern-day life: it can discourage activities and behavior in such a way as to have real, pernicious effects upon society. The health-care workers upon whom the senseless quarantine measures have fallen the hardest are angry, and rightfully so. The measures will do nothing to secure the U.S. from the threat of an Ebola outbreak; they will, in fact, only hamper the very real efforts of the people we’re depending on to quell the outbreak.

Like telling a pilot she can’t be trusted to safely maintain control over a pocket knife while she flies a 747, whisking courageous health-care workers away into quarantine on the pretense that they are incapable of monitoring their own health is not only absurd, it is downright insulting, and possibly even dangerous.

The Story of my Mother’s Breast Cancer Battle. And the True Birth of this Blog– Confession Time Starts (Please Read Opening– Important)

Told through a son’s eyes. Please, if you like this, and or think this site has some interesting/quality reads on it, please share. I’m going to just drop this whole professional/portfolio writer-looking-for-work thing soon and begin telling the truth, ugly though it may be. “Soon to be veteran career strategist!” my ass. I doubt I’d make it through certification, so I’ll delete that soon.

One thing is that I may not have long to live, due to a tragic series of events that currently has me stuck in Colombia. I’m not ready to share all of that yet. But here is one thing: my name is Jason Edward Harrington.You can search my Wikipedia page for more back story. I got a beautiful book deal with a major publisher in 2014, and I abandoned it when I realized I couldn’t write an autobiography at that age of 38. It’s a very, very long story, one that is currently put down into a new autobiography that now sits at 280 pages or so– the story of how I failed to write a conctractually obligated story. That’s why my name is HowiAbandoned: the name of my first and likely final book is “How I Abandoned a Book Deal, Ran to South America, Partied Away the Advance. And How You Can Do it Too!”

I’ve essentially been a man on the run for eight years now. I’m not ready to share the full, tragic, downward spiral that has been my life, just yet. But here is a very personal story that similarly reaches down into the depths of sadness and despair that the man behind this blog is truly experiencing every morning, day, and night. I only wanted to be a writer when I grew up, when I was a bright eyed, curly haired little brown boy. I hope you’ll help me reach readers, after all my failures.



October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it had always passed, I must confess, with little awareness on my part. I was aware of an abundance of pink ribbons—taped to front doors, printed on bumper stickers, tied around bike handlebars, pinned to people’s lapels. When, from my back porch, I would notice in the distant Chicago skyline the top of the John Hancock building bathed in pink light, I would think to myself, “It must be Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” with little perspective on the matter; with little sense of cause, or effect: the grass is green, the sky is blue, the top of the John Hancock building is pink. There was very little difference amongst these things for me, until the sky came falling down.

“I have breast cancer.”

My mother’s voice quavers before the end of the sentence, and I’m sure she’s been repeating the words to herself like a mantra for at least one full hour before dialing my number; steeling herself to make that sentence— to do it without betraying any fear in her voice— but she gets to that last word, and her voice goes tremolo. She gets to that last word, and I hold the phone away from me— I don’t drop it, it’s not quite like the movies. I just hold it away from me, and stare at it hard, sitting on the bus, at some stop— maybe mine, maybe not— glaring at the phone and thinking: I am going to destroy this black magical device currently recreating my mother’s distant, frightened voice— “Hello? Hello? Jason?”—I am going to send this harbinger of bad news into oblivion, maybe launch it, launch it into the…I look out the bus window: the grass is green, the top of the John Hancock building is pink, the sky is— I see the sky is blue, has the nerve to be blue, and finally I bring the phone to my ear.

“This is terrible” are the three words that I manage to gather. And I’m dimly aware of one thing, the first in a series: that I’ve just succeeded in stating the painfully obvious. Indeed, in the weeks since my mother’s diagnosis, I’ve become keenly aware of a few things.


I’ve become aware that full grown adults can become reduced to children when finding their loved ones caught in the path of cancer. Right after hanging up with Mom, I called my sister.

“Mom has cancer,” I told her, walking punch-drunk laps around my local liquor store’s aisles.

“Does not,” my 25 year old sister wittily retorts.

“Yes, she does,” I counter.

“No, she doesn’t,” she replies, in a voice at first only vaguely familiar, but then very familiar for a very obvious reason: it’s the voice of my sister, age 8, with that same soft tone of shyness, that same timidity of a little girl refuting, from beneath bed covers, the truth behind a bedtime ghost story.

 “Heather. Bilateral mastectomy in one week. Chemo after that, then radiation. She has cancer, Heather.”

 “Fine,” she surrenders, old enough to rent a car again.

“I’m going to deal with this, and you’re going to deal with this, too. You are not going to tear yourself down. And you are not going to drink your way through this.”

At that moment, somehow, it became real thing, acknowledged and confirmed by a second party, my sister, the person to whom I’d always been the closest. Have a Holly Jolly Christmas was playing over the store’s speakers at the moment when my mother‘s cancer became real, and I thought to myself, “just in time for Christmas.”


I’ve become aware that alcohol is a very unwise crutch to lean upon when dealing with a thing as serious as…well, this. This was a momentous realization to come to for a habitual alcohol and drug user. The first thing I did after winning the third grade debate with my sister was to settle on a cheap bottle of vodka and head for the liquor store’s counter. I had more than a few that night, more than usual, and I had more than a few the next few nights after that. Historically, whenever I’ve come up against something truly daunting in my life, I’ve drowned it in glass and aluminum containers. After the abrupt end of a five year relationship with an ex-girlfriend of mine, I drank no less than a twelve pack of beer a night, every night, for 2 years straight. Rows of beer cans lined up like refrigerated mortar rounds, the only way I’d ever known how to wage war against pain. The night before my mother’s bilateral mastectomy, just one week after the initial diagnosis, I came to the decision that I was going to face my mother’s cancer sober. There was no trip to see the man behind the liquor store counter that night, no anxiety meds, no sleeping pills, none of that: just me, a dreary mid- November day, and the terrifying, inescapable reality of what my mother and I were up against.

I sunk in my bed as soon as the sun went down, still hung over from the night before, feeling that suffocation which comes with problems that reach much deeper than an inconvenience; those problems that cannot be solved with a mere rearrangement of the trivial pieces of one of life’s day-to-day puzzles. Cancer is not a bill that you can pay. It is not a coworker you can ignore. It is not a stain that can be dry cleaned, or a garment that can be discarded. You close your eyes and wish you could free yourself from your Self; escape what it is you’re up against; like a child, squeeze your eyes shut and take the whole world with them— blink reality out, put everything on pause. Like all such things in life, there is often a moment in the morning when you first wake up, and for an instant, are free of some recently-installed black fact of your reality; the rude monster still lodged in the night before—out of sight, out of mind— but then, just as fast, the monster awakens, catches up to you, and you remember, with a sinking stomach, that it’s still there.

Lying there in bed, hung over and pining for a drink, I felt as though my head were being uncorked; as though something inside of me was being unthawed. Not the reality, but the implications of the reality, hit me that night— without alcohol as anesthesia, the pain of the implications was infinitely more profound. I could, sooner than later, find myself without a mother. Lying there in bed, I struggled not to let any of the hundreds of beautiful moments I’d shared with my mother be tainted by slow motion replay and a sappy movie score.

Lying there in bed, for the first time in a long time, I really cried.


I have become aware how painful, on many levels, it is for a woman to lose her breasts. My mother is a sweet woman of 65 years, mother of four, her eyes bad and her knees long ago gone out, even before the operation she was a woman who more than once had become mired in a sofa, or a recliner, and having done so, would ask for a hand only as a last resort.

“I’m getting old. Falling apart,” she would explain, apologetically, a little ashamed.

Walking into her hospital room for the first time, I saw what I knew I would see, what I’d dreaded to see: my mother, no longer just falling apart, but now ripped apart, lying in a bed that, to a son, might as well have been a butcher’s table. She’d been optimistic before the operation, as usual, even if only in appearance: always the doting mother, not wanting to be a bother, or a worry.

“I don’t need these things anymore, anyway,” she’d joked before the operation.

Now she was bleary-eyed, pale, shrouded in bandages. The optimism was gone. Now there was just a placid confusion in her eyes, drug-induced, most of it. Her voice barely there, trying to fight the morphine in order not to fall asleep, she mostly listened while I talked. I talked about going home, about having a drink when this was all over, about how it would be over, soon— we would beat cancer. I didn’t fully believe those words. I couldn’t believe them, seeing her like that. But I said them anyway. And it was only when she noticed my gaze sink furtively down to her chest, to the two bandaged pouches of purple and red flesh, that she seemed to awaken from her stupor.

“They’re gone,” was all she said.

She cupped her hand over her mouth then, and it seemed to me that she was, curiously, trying to stifle the pronouncement already made. But then, for the first time in a long time, it was my mother who was crying, sobbing, behind the cup of her hand.

“They served you well, Mom,” was all I could think to say, idiotically, as though I were a general addressing the mother of two fallen war heroes.

“They fed all four of us,” I continued, desperately scrambling to provide both solace as well as, I suppose, an impassioned case for a Purple Heart.

“Just you,” she corrected me, wiping at her eyes. Until then, I’d never known that I was the only one of my three brothers and sisters who had been breastfed. It seemed fitting right then, perhaps on some Freudian level, that I was the kid who seemed to be taking this all the hardest.


I have become aware that hospitals only do so much, and doctors only know so much. When my mother found the nickel-sized lump on her breast, she thought it was nothing; it felt like a marshmallow, soft, not hard like she’d always assumed a tumor would feel. But given the history of cancer in our family, she went to her doctor, who referred her to another doctor, who referred her to a general surgeon, who assured her that there was a 99 percent chance that the lump was just a “step off” from the breast tissue to the chest wall. “Just a ridge,” as the general surgeon called it, “nothing at all.” Looking at my mother lying in her hospital bed, two breasts and 14 lymph nodes gone (lymph nodes to which three the cancer had already spread) it seemed to me that a 1 percent chance had gone a long way. My mother, my sister and I were waiting for the nurse who had promised to bring a wheelchair right away— 45 minutes before. I’ve discovered that there are a lot of waiting and false assurances when it comes to hospitals— or at least the one my mother was in. Being that my mother is of the passive temperament, and I the same, we were lucky to have my sister on our side, all five foot eight fiery inches of her. Not much more than 24 hours after her surgery, the hospital was trying to send my mother home. My mother wasn’t ready to go home; she hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet, and the nurses at the hospital had done little in the way of providing assistance.

“She ain’t going nowhere until you people start doing your jobs,” my sister coolly informed the staff.

After that, they were a little more attentive. Although I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the receiving end of my sister’s scowl when she finally hunted down that wheelchair herself.


There are the delicate inquiries of my younger nieces, calling to ask how Grandma is doing, and then shyly moving on to The Question- the fear in their voices thinly veiled— asking about the results of the genetic testing. “Are we all fated for cancer?” is the underlying question the family quietly asks, not wanting to appear selfish for asking it, but asking it nonetheless.

There is the reality of the inevitable parent-child role reversal having finally arrived, like a change of drivers in a speeding car. One of the first nights home with my mother, she noted that it was about dinner time. We sat there for a few awkward moments, like two actors in a play who had forgotten their lines. But then, I remembered my new role.

“Hope you don’t mind chicken and macaroni and cheese,” I said, heading bravely for the kitchen, “because it’s about the only thing I know how to cook.” Another night, I realized that she was fighting her much-needed sleep to stay up late to talk to me. “Time to get your butt to bed,” I told her, half in jest, echoing the same call-to-bedtime she had used on me when I was little.

Being that we live 60 miles apart— myself in Chicago, and she in rural Illinois, where cell phone service is spotty— my mother, for the first time, began teaching herself to text message in the days following her delivery of the bad news. She learned fast and adorably. It seemed as though the texts appearing on my cell phone’s screen were coming from a teenage girl, instead of from a 65 year old woman. I began receiving “lol”s and “ttyl”s, “omg”s and “gtg”s. And, though I knew there was likely great pain behind them, there even appeared the occasional:



I’ve become aware that before cancer I had not been as close to my mother as I should have been. Sitting with her while she recovered from surgery, I opened up and talked to my mother— really talked to her—for the first time in a while, not so much like mother and son, but more like two friends. I talked to her about girls, about nights out with the boys, about the things that I feared most. Timidly, I asked her if she was afraid of death, mostly to see where she was, psychologically, but also secretly—and selfishly—to mentally file for myself an example; a point of reference for when the day came that I, too, found myself staring into the swirling inevitability. She’d been through so much up to that point, she told me, that the possibility of her own death stirred within her little fear. She answered so coolly, so matter-of-fact— as though I’d only asked what kind of dressing she preferred on her salad—that I knew she meant it, at least right then. In the face of it all, she stood courageous, and at that moment I was prouder of her than I’d ever been before.


The most miraculous thing I’ve become aware of is this: there is actually some good that can come from cancer. Lying in my bed the night before her surgery, after the tears had dried, a calmness settled over me, and I realized, in one of those beautiful epiphanies, that I didn’t have to be scared. If given the chance, the mind finds ways to cope with misfortune; its ability to find meaning amidst chaos is uncanny. The answer came to me that night, and I immediately texted Mom:

“Guess what I just realized? We’re going to be fine. We’re going to be closer than ever now, as close as we always should have been. We’re okay now, and we’ll always be okay. Nothing can change that, no matter what happens. If anyone is guaranteed to be healthy through this, paradoxically, it’s us. And I’m not scared anymore.”

The first reply came five minutes later:

“You betcha!”

Followed by a second, five minutes later:

“Now get your butt to bed :-)”

Writing Sample: Full Short Story, Fiction.

Military satire written during the second Iraq War. Formatting went off a little, but not too bad.

Yi-Pei the Sniper

By Jason Harrington

From the memoirs of Staff Sgt. Phineas “The Director” Bailey.

March 26, 2007:

My boys call me The Director, and yeah, I’ve shot an ass or two. I spent the first 20 years of my career crouching in Bel-Air bushes just to bring that semi-nude photo of Carnie Wilson to your grocery store’s checkout line. For a long time I thought I’d scraped the dregs of meaningless humiliation. Then I joined the U.S. war in Iraq. In all my years in Hollywood I’d seen my share of far-fetched war movies up on the silver screen, but none of them came close to capturing the absurd reality of the job me and my boys have taken on as snipers in Baghdad’s Dora district. I’ve worked with a lot of sharpshooters since signing on to this war three years ago, but I never worked with anyone quite like Yi-Pei. But before we get to the star of this show, let me rewind the footage, go over the supporting cast, the location, put out a press kit, so to speak: a little back story on me, my boys, our mission, and the setting.

Numero uno: I hate conflict. That’s probably the first thing that made me a logical choice for this war. I began as a Paparazzo, staking out celebrities for days at a time, an Olympus OM-1 hanging around my neck like a dog tag. That front-page spread of Carnie Wilson pool-side wearing nothing but a thong after her first fat relapse back in ’91? You’re welcome. Everyone knows me by the Carnie spread, and not to brag, but I have to agree it’s my best work; big-time stuff. Carnie-goddamned-Wilson in all the flesh, liposuction scars still not yet healed and already back up to 250 pounds. I holed up in her bushes for damn near 48 hours to get that one. When she caught sight of me in her hedges and charged like a rhino, did I stand my ground to get an assault spread on top of the weight-gain spread? Hell no. I broke fast for the perimeter wall, snapping photos over my shoulder. Starting with the Carnie spread, I made a name for myself in the paparazzi world: stealthy, patient, and sharp-eyed. Turned out my knack for unwanted invasions of privacy caught the eyes of some military brass back in ‘03. At first I thought they had the wrong man: the only military experience I’d ever had was a stint with the National Guard. But from my very first day on the job, I knew I was just as qualified as anyone else.

There’s a neighborhood in Dora District that, on any given day, plays host to more suspected terrorists wanted by the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. All day and all night, they come and they go. It is this neighborhood that we monitor, from the fourth floor above what used to be the Pizzeria Napoli. I use the past tense because the Pizzeria Napoli is now nothing more than a charred husk, having been car bombed by insurgents when its owner was suspected of passing out free breadsticks to U.S. troops in ‘04. The good thing about half the building being reduced to shattered glass and powdered brick, however, is two-fold: 1. Our headquarters is now out of the enemy’s cross-hairs, and 2. The owner- Mr. Asad Ru’Shimi- is now on our payroll and back in business as our personal cook and creator of delicious Italian foodstuffs from the first floor kitchen. “Nothing satisfies when you’re in the Red Zone, like a Pizzeria NapoliCalzone” ™

Before Yi-Pei came on board, I had three men under my command: two snipers, Owl and Bug, along with a promising young grunt, Calzone. Owl was a Desert Storm vet, a Southern boy who had learned to shoot hunting wild pigs in the backwoods, an old dog in this show, around my age: mid 30s. In the morning, he was a fine sniper: focused and alert. But after 1200 hours- his lunchtime– his morale went low. Where before lunch he would be a proper sniper– one eye winked closed and the other opened wide against the rubber-lined scope of his M-40– after lunch both of his eyes would be lolling without focus somewhere above his scope and out on the cracked streets, meditating on the Red-Crossed blurs streaking back and forth. From his afternoon low he would gradually regain life until the end of his lookout, and then come the next morning he would be back to his alert self. Usually, deliberative calculation would be a desirable characteristics in a sniper, but the thing was, somehow, after 1200 hours Owl became too relaxed, too tranquil, too clear-headed– fact is, he began questioning things. But I have to say, before 1200 hours Owl was a hell of a sniper. So, on a slow day, a Friday (youm al-jum`a, mosque day) I dropped him the hint that he was undoubtedly sharp before lunch, but that afterwards, it would probably be best for him to catch some R&R and let Bug and I run the show.

“Permission to speak freely, sir?” he drawled.

“Cut the jargon, kid. Pitch me.”

“Okay, so there’s this old boy. A sniper. In the morning he’s sharp like an eagle. Nothin’ escapes his sites, every thing is in his sites,” he forked his middle and forefinger in front of his eyes to demonstrate acuity.

“But see, in the afternoon, and on towards evening, this old boy gets to philosophizin’. In the afternoon he’s like an owl. And in the afternoon, he wonders why the things are in his sites,” now he held both fingers up as if to shrug; a peace sign for a shrug held out in front of a slanted grin.

Owl’s knees cracked when he took his first steps after shut eye. I found I could always bring myself to wield my authority over the younger soldiers, but not over a man whose bones cracked like mine in the morning.

“We’re just painting, Owl. When the orders start coming down again to squeeze, then I understand. But for now… it’s just painting. Stay on mission.”

My second man, Bug, was a skinny Mexican kid, 23 years old, a serrated scar above his lip like an elongated beauty mark- born and raised in the barrios of East L.A. For Bug the war was just a logical continuation of the life he’d been living in L.A. before he’d enlisted. He wore a khaki suit better than any of us: every morning he made a point of pressing two perfect columnar creases down the middle of his khaki pant legs using a wrench heated on our stove, and he wore them sagged down below his ass like he’d never left El Sereno. That’s one thing about Bug, though; he wore the war cleanly and with style. Owl’s state of cleanliness, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired, and he didn’t seem to mind. When he pissed in our latrine, you could smell crotch all through the air long after he zipped up, and the brim of the musty fisherman’s hat he had permanently installed on his head rarely revealed both eyes at once.

     Morale seemed to be on alternating shifts with my boys. Where it visited Owl on high in the mornings, and low in the afternoons, it was exactly the opposite for Bug. In the afternoons, when Owl went Socrates, Bug was on point, every ounce of his street-made alertness magnified through eight telescopic lenses. But come morning, Bug would start bugging out. It seemed as though in the morning he went to war with himself and every goddamned conceivable thing outside of the enemy. He battled the sweat trickling into his eyes with the backs of his hands and cursed the Mesopotamian sun in Spanish. He clashed with the Spartan furnishings of our quarters and kicked over chairs. He entered into epic struggles with his rifle, disassembling and reassembling, claiming he had to get it just right before he could scope anything, although he never got it right. The war itself became the enemy every morning for Bug, but the aspect that took the brunt of it was definitely the MRE rations.

     “Salisbury steaks and Hooah bars, Salisbury steaks and Hooah bars, all the live long day! Hooah bars spinning in my nightmares, Salisbury steaks bobbing in my shit! It’s a freeze-dried takeover, Dog! Chingalo, I’m gonna’ die fighting the fuckin’ menu!”

The only way to calm Bug down at times like that was to send Calzone down to the kitchen on a Calzone run.

Calzone was the third member of our team: black sheep son of Senator Joseph McKedzie, guilty only of being acquiescent and turning 18 during Primaries. To accusations that he was a War Hawk who wouldn’t be willing to send any of his three sons to war, the good senator’s witty retort was to send Calzone to war. Calzone had dropped out of high school just before being volunteered, but it wasn’t for lack of intelligence: no, he was extremely intelligent– it just didn’t show in any way. His brilliance was inert; his genius was in the negative; his smartness was in knowing that it wasn’t his place to get smart, so when he ambled from corner to corner of our small apartment wearing headphones unattached to any type of music player, he did it so that he could hear us over the non-music when we ordered him to sneak down to the kitchen to ask Mr. Ru’Shimi to whip up some calzones.

I should have given this treatment before. The way we ran our lookout was this: four walls, four windows, four directions of observation. I covered East, Owl covered South, Bug covered North, Calzone covered stomach. We needed a West man, so one morning I put in a request to Central Command. Yi-Pei arrived at sunset that very same day, in the only safe way for a U.S. soldier to travel unnoticed through Baghdad: hands bound, black hood tied over his head, with a pair of AK-47-touting Iraqi escorts– friendlies– who winked, shoved a heavy duffel bag in my arms and then disappeared like specters.

I also should have mentioned the nature of our day to day ops. In most wars, the activities associated with snipers usually involve sniping people. But this was a new kind of war we were fighting, dictated by a different kind of logic, and so keeping in theme, we were in the business of not sniping people. We considered ourselves conspiring painters– I ran the show like art class. Leaning over Bug’s shoulder on a typical morning, it wasn’t just the barrel of an M-42 sniper rifle that he was looking down as he sat on an overturned bucket three feet back from the window, but an M-42 with an infrared attachment.

“Do you have a shot?” I asked him, laying a hand on his shoulder and bringing my cheek against his ear.

Two triggers on the rifle: trigger one for bullet, and a button on the side of the rifle, for beam. Through his scope he sees a minivan pull up to the curb, from the sliding doors a group of men emerge. Through the liquid snakes of the heat waves he singles out a man he knows is number 7 on the laminated list of suspected terrorist head shots we all had memorized. He gets him in his sites and depresses the button which sends the beam from point one, which invisibly paints point two on Mr. 7’s chest, which makes it possible for the U.S. satellite careening just outside the earth’s atmosphere to become point three, thereby completing a lovely triangle which puts a flashing red dot on the computer screens of military intelligence from Hamburg to Honolulu, designating the precise location of Mr. 7, down to within a half an inch. 

“Man, get up out my face,” Bug said, shrugging me off with his shoulder. “Yeah, I got a shot.”

“Good. Now don’t take it.”

Strolling over to Owl and leaning over his shoulder I found out he had a number 12 man in his sites.

“Got him?”


“Beautiful. Now drop him.”

      Owl could make Number 12 literally dead with the squeeze of the trigger, or potentially dead with a push of the button. But literally dead this week means the Pentagon will have nothing to brag about next week when the Times runs an article on the President’s plunging approval ratings and the dwindling support for the war. Wars these days are fought on front lines and on front pages, and that’s why I’m here– I’m sympathetic to media strategy.

     Sometimes, I would sit in my chair in the corner, listening to my room full of sharpshooters not shooting. I would web my fingers behind my neck and lean way back, just taking it all in.

     “You hear that?” I would ask my men. 

     “No, sir?”

     “Exactly. Savor it, boys. That’s the sound of nothing. One day, when they ask us what this war was about, we’ll remember that sound.”

     The heavy black duffel bag that the hired Iraqi escorts shoved into my arms contained a disassembled rifle. Yi Pei was unusually tall for a man of Asian descent, I thought; so tall that even sitting cross-legged on the floor he still came up to Calzone’s chest. Without a word before or many after he assembled in 12 seconds what turned out to be a death-black, .50 cal M-82. Bug was in awe.

“Damn, dog. I heard you could punch a hole clean through a tank with them motherfuckers.”

It was this same rifle that Yi-Pei held as I slid up behind him and leaned over his shoulder.

     “Got him?” I asked.


     “Good, now-“

     “I’m taking it.”

Owl turned around and swept his fisherman’s hat off his head. Bug stopped rifle assembling mid-assembly. Reeling, I asked the room in general:

     “Did I miss a kill directive here, or…?”

     “No,” Yi-Pei cut in, “but I’m taking it.”

     Looking through my binoculars I saw what he saw: two men sitting at table at an outdoor café. One of them had a monstrous cleft lip. No doubt about it, Number 16. I spoke without taking my eyes away from the binoculars.

     “Okay, kid, you got number 16 in your sites there, good work, but I think I forgot to fill you in on terminology. When we mark them, it’s not called ‘taking’ it. What you’re doing right now is ‘painting’ him, the button on your infrared attachment there, giving headquarters exact coordinates on the enemy combatant, and then standing down until if, and when…”

     The shot deafened us in the room, and, 600 yards away, the spray of Number 16’s blood blinded his friend. He dropped his steak knife on the table and tumbled out of his chair, wiping at his eyes. The last thing I saw before I hit the deck was him reaching behind his back and looking around wildly. Yi-Pei slunk deftly from view of the window. Owl and Bug remained stunned and visible from the windows– 3 feet back from the windows– but still visible.

“Down!” I hissed, lying on my side. Calzone was still standing, and near me, so I yanked him down by the dangling cord of his headphones.

And then we all just watched each other from the floor for a while, motionless and without a word, until the wailing of sirens began to fill the silence– along with the sound of hollow metal skittering across the wooden floor– as Yi-Pei kicked his  spent, red-hot shell towards him with the tip of his boot, gingerly enfolding it in his hand, using his sleeve as a mitt.

None of us had ever actually taken a shot at the enemy before, so for a few days we laid low, unsure of what to expect. When nothing happened, we were all a little surprised, and I ascribed Yi-Pei’s indiscretion to a greenhorn’s overzealousness. Nothing a little briefing couldn’t fix, so one evening buckets and chairs were circled in the center of the room and a meeting was held. I stood stage-center. Everyone’s eyes were on me besides Yi-Pei’s; his attention was on the floor and to the left.

“Listen up,” I began, “recently, there have been some misunderstandings. And in all fairness, I may have failed to run through the script as thoroughly as I should have. HQ wants visual confirmations and pinpoint locations. They want us to get their targets in our sites in order to give them options. I know it may seem that a dead enemy is a good enemy, but, for reasons above us, that’s not always the case. Remember: ‘A dead terrorist is worth 0 points; an undead terrorist is worth at least twice as much.’ So, when we get a target in our sites, we hold him there, and…”

     “We take him,” Yi-Pei said without looking up. Calzone didn’t stop giggling until my eyes met his. Yi-Pei avoided my hard gaze.

     “We’re taking him? ‘We’re taking him,’ Yi-Pei says. Easy as that. What do you think about that, Owl?”

     “Speakin’ freely, sir…he’s insubordinate,” he said, adding beneath his breath, “although, a snipin’ sniper would make for a harmonious marriage between form and function…”

     “What about you, Bug?”

     “We got a mission, and we gotta’ stick to it, we’re not shooters, we’re snipers. He’s gonna’ get us killed, shootin’ at the enemy! Let’s take him out right now!”

     “And you, Calzone?”

     Calzone suddenly came to, having been lost somewhere between his headphones.

     “Maybe a calzone would balance him out, sir?”

     “Did you catch all that, Yi-Pei? Sounds as though it’s not as easy as just ‘taking it,’ doesn’t it?”

     He never gave an answer- his narrow eyes remained fastened on the floor, and so we continued our operation as usual that afternoon; Owl debating with himself over the justness of Yi-Pei’s action, Bug showing Yi-Pei by example how to disassemble his rifle and leave it that way, for the good of the mission.

     A week went by without further incident. A lot of wanted men in our sites, and of course, no orders to fire. Yi-Pei’s recent actions caused me to monitor his behavior a little more closely. He sat on his overturned bucket, facing toward the window, leg crossed over his knee, elbow rested on arm, rifle steady for hours on end, seemingly without moving so much as an inch. He was a fixture at his West window. The rest of us slept on 3 hour shifts; Yi-Pei never slept, and if he did, it was behind his rifle, eye pressed against scope. He never touched our reserve of MRE rations. The only time he ever ate was after Calzone returned from his runs to the downstairs kitchen, when he would place a calzone at Yi-Pei’s feet and quickly bow away. I was conflicted over the actions of Yi-Pei. On the one hand, he was being insubordinate by not shooting. On the other, he was firing on confirmed enemy combatants. How could I blame a man at war for fighting the enemy? Eventually, I self-reasoned the burden of fault onto my own shoulders, convincing myself that Yi-Pei’s little outbursts were nothing that a little on-the-job training couldn’t fix. It was raining that day and so across the street Number 9, a middle-aged man with preposterously large gold-rimmed spectacles, stood out of the rain in the doorway of a small shop, smoking a cigarette and chatting with another unidentified man. Adjusting my scope, I jerkily zoomed in through the diagonally slanting sheets of rain, then further in, too far, all the way in to the cracked beige surface of the shop’s clay bricks, then back out too far, where a blurry local boy with rain-slicked hair was kicking a soccer ball against the trunk of a palm tree, and then finally in to Number 9 himself, putting his chest in my cross hairs, using the designer insignia on his American-made dress shirt as a target.

     “Observe, Yi-Pei,” I said in between a measured breath, “Number 9, locked. Now I could take him right now, but do I? No.”

     I reached my index finger up to the side of the rifle and depressed the infrared button. Through my sites a red dot lit up in the center of the crosshairs.

     “Now the boys and girls at command see everything I see. Any second now, an order will come in over-“

     “Command to Stryker 6, hold combatant in sites, stand down until further instructions. Repeat…” a nasal voice crackled through my headpiece.

     “And the beauty of it is, the further instructions never come, Yi-Pei. We’re not in the business of shooting,” I said, dipping my crosshairs a little to follow Number 9 as he stepped forward to flick his cigarette in the street. Behind me, Owl’s voice hesitantly rose.

     “Hey, uh, sir?”

     “Not now, Owl. I’m showing Yi-Pei how to not shoot.”

     “Understood, sir. But on that subject, I’m not so sure he’s…”

     “Quiet, Owl. That’s an order. We’re training here.”

      There was the whoosh of the toilet flushing and the sound of the bathroom door opening, and then it was Bug:

     “Oh, hell no. Motherfucker’s ‘taking it’ again, ain’t he? Endangering our mission…fuck this shit! Take him out, Owl!”

     “In the grand scheme of things, what difference would that make?” Owl said placidly.

     Just as soon as it occurred to me that behind me Yi-Pei may have been following Number 9 with more than a trainee’s interest, he made it known to all of us, in resounding and concise fashion, that he was, indeed, taking it.

One day not long after that, two big things went down. While scoping a building 1,000 yards off, I found myself looking straight into an insurgent’s binoculars. Luckily, his attention was focused on the building next to us, but just as I slid away from the window, the growing sound of footsteps came clicking down the hallway outside our door. Things like that usually come in threes, so I was sure the hat trick would be made by a close quarter fire fight. All of us went low. All of our rifles were leveled at the door. I slipped Calzone my side arm and even he took aim. I hated and loved Yi-Pei right then: hated him for putting us in that situation, loved him for being armed and on our side. As a series of knocks rapped the door I wondered whether the mother of the man I was about to kill would be proud to know that her son had knocked before he entered. I reached into the side pocket of my fatigues to make sure the last option- the cyanide pills- were still there. We called the last option “Chapter 7”- too much debt, too few assets, time for self-liquidation. On the second series of knocks I considered firing at the approximate place on the door where his head would be– average height, Middle eastern male, 5’8– when a muffled, quavering voice sounded out: “Delivery, Napoli Pizza.”

Wearing bags beneath his eyes and his signature scowl, Mr. Ru’Shimi told us what I already knew: the enemy was closing in on us. Hajji was scoping for us now. I ordered everyone away from all windows for a day while I decided on a course of action. Yi-Pei disregarded the order and stayed right at his post, but I didn’t bother arguing. In fact, I wanted him there. At that point, I didn’t like the idea of not having him on guard.

“We’re changing locations. Our boys are sweeping the neighborhood tomorrow, and in the middle of it we’re changing position. You can’t stay here, Yi-Pei. This building is no longer a base of operations.”

Yi-Pei stood before me, his eyes dull and unfocused.

“I’m taking it.”

”You’re taking it? You’re taking what? The building? You’ll be killed here before the week is out. Hajji is closing in on this location. We’re moving a mile East. It’s not quite in the middle of the action like we are here, but it’s safer. You give us your word you’ll stop taking targets, you can come with us. You’re a brilliant sniper, kid. But really, you can’t stay here.”

     “I can, and I’m taking it.”

Somehow, he was looking at me and through me at the same time. His eyes seemed cloudy.

“What’s wrong with your eyes?” I demanded.

“Nothing. I see everything. Feel like sniper God.”

“Well, you’re not. You’re trigger happy. The next time you get a target in your sites…”

“Taking it.”

“You’re not!” I rarely smoked, but I had a pack of reserves in my breast pocket and I lit one up now.

“You’re insubordinate.”

“I’m functional.”

I had a pistol holstered at my side. I reached for my wallet instead.

“This is fifty American. I could shoot you right now for insubordination but-“

“You couldn’t. I could take you.”

“But,” I continued, “I’m going to give you this money and wish you luck. I wouldn’t advise staying here. You would probably do best to hop straight into a cab and haul ass for the Green Zone. At any rate, if you try to come back with us, I will personally shoot you.”

     “And then I’ll shoot him again,” Owl piped up from the other side of the room, “Son of a bitch can’t even stick to a simple mission. Orders are God: we serve the orders. That’s our only duty. Don’t they teach that in basic training anymore?” It was morning; Owl was pro-mission.

     “Freedom, mission, duty, God, put ‘em all in a pot and mix ‘em up, still won’t have shit to do with this war. To shoot, not to shoot, fuck it, don’t fuck it, it’s all fucked up anyway,” Bug said, disassembling his rifle.

“Luckily, my opinion remains constant– you’re a threat to this mission. The best of luck.”

I extended the money; he didn’t move. Finally I laid it on the floor at his feet. The next morning brought the sound of U.S. tanks, Humvees and shouts rumbling through the streets below us. Closing the door behind us, only Yi-Pei and the untouched 50 dollars were left behind as evidence that U.S. soldiers had ever been there.

Our new operating base was another fourth floor apartment, in another building owned by Mr. Ru’Shimi. The views of the hot spot weren’t as good, but the quarters were much better: the place was furnished, and we even had an old T.V. with a DVD player. The hardest thing was that we no longer had the Pizzeria Napoli below us- Calzone had no more errands to run, although Mr. Ru’Shimi occasionally dropped in with a bag full of calzones. If any of us deserved a medal for valor it was definitely Mr. Ru’Shimi. With Yi-Pei gone, we returned to the tranquility that comes with not shooting. But even though he was no longer with us, the unmistakable crack of that M-82 continued ringing out a mile away. Through our scopes we could see Yi-Pei’s handiwork– men lying dead in the streets and crowds gathering around them. I still covered the East window and so, since we’d moved West, I had a view of the old building’s West window. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of him as he inched a little too far out of the shadows and too close to the window. As Yi-Pei’s shots continued to ring out– breaking afternoon silence, shattering morning stillness– it seemed as though nothing would be able to stop them. Then one day Mr. Ru’Shimi stopped by again, more solemn than usual. He wanted to talk privately, away from Bug and Calzone, so we held our conversation in the john.

     “The one you have left in my building– the one who shoots all day and all night– I have asked him to leave, yet he does not go,” he said as I closed the bathroom door behind us. “Dangerous men are becoming suspicious. If he does not stop shooting, if you cannot make him stop shooting, you must understand…I will have to go to them before they come to me.”

“That’s Yi-Pei. Always taking it. Stubborn on that point. That’s why he’s no longer associated with us, Mr. Ru’Shimi. If radical elements start asking you questions, I advise you to play stupid. You don’t know us, we don’t know him, he’s a rogue U.S. soldier squatting in your building, that’s all you know and that’s all they need to know-“

“Excuse me, sir.” He held his index finger in front of him, as if to symbolize “I.

     ”I, am Shia. They…”

     Now he pointed his finger toward the bathroom window.

     ”Are Sunni. That is all they need to know to kill me quickly. Any excuse they find above that…is reason to kill me slowly.”

     His words hung darkly in the air. Unsure of how to deal with them, I picked up on the other thing that hung in the air.

“I smell something yummy. What’s that in the bag? Fess up, Ru’Shimi. You don’t expect me to believe you didn’t bring any calzones?”

     He reached into the bag he was holding and pulled out a warm mass of tinfoil. Somehow I understood they would be the last calzones until circumstances changed, one way or the other.

“We’re taking him.”

I made the announcement quietly, staring out of the East window, leaning back in my chair. Bug was dancing in the middle of the room- Crip Walking to the call to evening prayer. Owl sat watching him, gnawing on a toothpick.

“Yes, sir! We’re takin’ him. Gonna’ Crip Walk straight to Mecca in this bitch, kill that insubordinate motherfucker on the way. We takin’ him, we takin’ him,” Bug sang, pivoting and shuffling his feet to an imagined hip-hop syncopation.

“Quit that hip-hoppin’ bullshit,” Owl grumbled. “Disrespectful little son ‘bitch. Somebody should take you. Hey Cal, pass me the last calzone.”

“I’m taking it,” Calzone proudly announced, his shining moment having finally arrived at his post guarding the plate of calzones. I jumped up from my chair.

“Since when are we all ‘taking’ things now? Nobody’s taking anybody, besides us to Yi-Pei. He’s given us no choice. This is the last time anything or anyone is going to be taken.”

The biggest challenge was going to be catching Yi-Pei at one of the moments when he wandered too close to the West window of the old apartment. Also, in the morning, Bug questioned the morality of killing a fellow U.S. soldier and refused to take part in the operation, and in the afternoon, Owl did the same. Seeing that it was mostly up to me to take the East window, I did what I had to do: posted Calzone there with a pair of binoculars and the order to inform me when Yi-Pei was visible. About a day into the operation, Calzone’s voice shakily broke the room’s silence:

     “I see him. I see him, sir. And…he looks very serious. I’m not so good at reading lips but…I think he’s telling me that…he’s baking me…”

     We all stared at Calzone for a moment, lost. And then, at the same moment, it hit us.


     “-The son ‘bitch is taking you, Cal!-”

     “-Hit the floor, kid!”

     And not a moment too soon. The bullet burst in through the window and grazed the TV 10 feet behind where Calzone’s head had been, spreading a spider-web pattern of cracks symmetrically across the screen.

And so for days, the sorry state of things was this: we were a team of snipers in the business of not shooting, rendered unable to not shoot from our East window– the one window from which it was most likely (though more unlikely than not) that an order to not not shoot would have to be carried out– by a fellow member of the U.S. Marines, who was holding us virtually hostage and endangering our war effort by shooting the enemy. Surprisingly, we took it all sitting down. Owl began work on a manifesto, Bug broke the known-record for the fastest disassembly and assembly of an M-42, Calzone caught up on his non-music, and I took to sneaking surveillance from the East window, trying to catch Yi-Pei off guard. Meanwhile, the crack of that death-black M-82 continued to sound out, bringing us all together in glances and in speculation, until the day when the sound of Yi-Pei’s rifle went quiet, and stayed that way. When Mr. Ru’Shimi arrived with a DVD and a solemn face in lieu of calzones many days later, we gathered around the cracked T.V., and our silence became black. Without meeting my words or my eyes, Mr. Ru’Shimi handed me the DVD and left.

I lit a cigarette as the image of Yi-Pei sprang to life on the screen, seated in a chair in our old headquarters, looking at something off-screen.

“Sons of bitches got him. Woulda’ been lucky to have been taken by us instead,” Owl said.

“I can’t watch this shit. Animals,” Bug said, walking away.

Only Calzone and I were left to watch and listen as the shadow of a man fell over Yi-Pei.

“What is your name?” a tinny voice asked in heavily-accented English.

Yi-Pei’s gaze remained locked somewhere behind and away from the camera. His uniform was disheveled, his face bore bruises and somehow he looked gaunter than he did in person. There was a brief salvo of whispers behind the camera, and then the voice of the off-screen interrogator came again:

“Your name and your rank.”

     Yi-Pei blinked. It was the first discernible movement he had made so far on the tape. He blinked and looked above and around the camera but not into it. The whispers behind the camera began again.

     “You will denounce America and its allies…look into the camera!”

     The camera trembled and Yi-Pei fell slightly out of focus, and then Yi-Pei looked into the camera, sending a chill careening down my spine. It was the first time I’d looked directly into his eyes in the 4 weeks I had known him– they were reptilian eyes, cold, black and gleaming. In a second movement, he wiped his hand down his face, from his nose to his goatee. He locked his eyes on the camera for a moment longer and then looked away again, his jaw muscles now tensed visibly, as though he was on the verge of a verbal outburst. But it never came. His jaw just kept working, silently.

     “You will denounce the American war effort or you will die.”

     “Why doesn’t he do it?” Calzone asked at my side.

     “They’re going to kill him regardless,” I said.

     Again the interrogator’s voice came, furious this time. 

     “Do you understand?”

Yi-Pei looked into the camera again, but now his eyes were different. Glazed over, eyelids sagging, he then did a strange thing– he began nodding slowly, almost rhythmically, as though listening to some distant music. His eyes weren’t closing, so much as absolutely relaxing. I began nodding my head with him as I caught on. Chapter 7. There were shouts in Arabic. The camera zoomed all the way in on Yi-Pei’s face, and then went out of focus.

“He took it,” I said, rising from the couch and walking toward the TV. Just before I turned it off, Yi-Pei was back in focus, head on the floor with a knife at this throat. The shouts rose to a fierce Arabic crescendo, and it seemed as though they were trying to wake him up to die. But his body was limp, his eyes remained closed, and when I turned the TV off, only the spider-web cracks remained on the screen. After a while, we all took up our positions again, in silence, again, three feet back from the windows.

In the days that followed I did some digging around and got half a scoop on Yi-Pei’s history. He was first generation Vietnamese-American, from a poor family. He had invested everything in his military career. He’d been somewhat of a star at Fort Benning, known around the academy for being inhumanly accurate behind a rifle, but not very well-liked by either his peers or superiors. He had learned to shoot from his father, a war vet himself: Nam. The other side. A V.C. sniper with a legendary American headcount. It all made sense the more I thought about it. Some people have a thing, a genuine thing, and the only burden that comes with it is that they have to do that thing, irrespective of the circumstances. That thing is their function, and the only way it’s wrong is when it’s not being performed. Yi-Pei was a killer, but insofar as that, he was authentic: one of the few things in this war that actually made any sense.

Fucking Yi-Pei. Fucking war.       

Sample: Journalistic piece (And good CBD Article Simulation)

I wrote this for the Chicago Reader, originally. Was published there way back in 2002. This is my first ever publication! A good idea of how I’d handle a CBD article.

The K2 Rush

Chicago head shops brace for the impending synthetic marijuana ban, while an unlikely group of smokers place their orders to stock up.

by Jason Edward Harrington

“Gimme’ 10 Blondes,” says the hoary man in a knit cap, as the employee behind the counter unlocks the glass cabinet in Secrets, a smoke shop in Lakeview, “Time’s running out!” the man says to the employee, his manner as vibrant as the varicolored paraphernalia which deck the walls like psychedelic Christmas ornaments. “Better enjoy it while we got it, right?”

The kids call it spice. Older users give it the more dignified and literal moniker, “synthetic.” It’s sold in 3 gram packets at 30 bucks a pop. The label on the packet says “For fragrance purposes only. Not for consumption.” The label is being sarcastic: it’s an herbal blend sprayed with a chemical compound designed to, when smoked, mimic the effects of THC. In fact, it’s much more powerful than THC. It may be “fake weed” but it will really get you high.

K2 has been on smoke shop shelves in Chicago since 2006. On January 1st it will become illegal in Illinois, officially categorized as a controlled substance. It’s the first such ban on a substance since the state outlawed pure-form powdered Dextromethorphan ( DXM, the ingredient in cough syrup that can make having a cold kind of fun) in 2007, and, most recently, in 2008, salvia divinorum, a plant with hallucinogenic properties. It’s not a new story: too many kids getting high on something, so state and local governments outlaw it. But the little-known secret about K2 is that it isn’t just kids using; in fact, most of its users are adults– many of them even government employees, themselves.

“Before I got hired on, I smoked weed from time to time,” said one CTA employee, wishing to remain anonymous. “But with the random drops they give us, smoking weed…too risky. Once I tried K2, I realized it was the next best thing. You piss clean with it, too. I’m just going to stock up before the ban.”

In these weeks preceding the ban, “stocking up” seems to be the key phrase for Chicagoans who, for one reason or another, have turned to K2 as their marijuana substitute.

“I warned all my customers to start placing their orders in November. There’s a lot of interest in buying in bulk,” said one employee at Pipes and Stuff– a smoke shop with locations in Wicker Park and Lakeview– where the K2 is displayed front and center, right next to the register, as it is in most head shops where K2 is sold. “There’s definitely going to be a big rush leading up to the ban.” 

Another employee at a popular smoke shop in Uptown acknowledged that his customers run the full gamut of adult professionals.

“We get nurses, army guys, government employees…anyone who gets drug-tested, really.”

The main draw for these unlikely users is the money-shot substance drizzled on the K2 herbal mix, the chemical JWH-018, named after John W. Huffman, the organic chemistry researcher who developed JWH-018– along with hundreds of other synthetic cannabinoid compounds– during the 1990s to aid in medical research. It didn’t take long for people to pick up on the recreational drug-use potential of Dr. Huffman’s work, and it was JWH-018 that was honed in on as the compound of choice for best replicating the THC high. For users, the most attractive quality of JWH-018 and other similar compounds is the fact that it will not show up on any standard drug test. Among the first groups of people to realize the urinalysis-circumventing potential for such a drug were members of our very own armed forces. The military is now screening for the compounds commonly found in K2. Government and private institutions, thus far, are not, meaning that for now, K2 and its many variations are considered by many to be the closest substitutes for individuals who wish to enjoy a marijuana-like high, sans the risk of termination.

Short term, the most commonly-reported effects of K2 Summit (the most powerful blend in the K2 lineup, which includes Blonde, Standard, and Citron) include increased heart rate, paranoia, mild hallucination, and an enhanced appreciation of music (seriously). Sounds pretty familiar. The only thing missing are reports of increased appetite. The high is much shorter-lasting than your typical marijuana buzz, but much more intense: many users report heavy trips well outside and beyond the realm of any marijuana high.

The long term effects, on the other hand, are the biggest problem with K2: namely, the fact that nobody has any real idea what they may be.

“People are taking a huge risk when they smoke this stuff,” Dr. Huffman said, when asked about people’s abuse of the chemical compounds created in his lab. “We really don’t know what the health effects might be.”

Scrolling through the K2-related posts on Bluelight.com, a forum of often-times freakishly knowledgeable recreational drug users, one comes across an alarming 13 page mega-thread, devoted entirely to one undesirable lingering K2 side effect in particular: severe, chronic headaches.

“I smoked it on only about 5 occasions total, the last two it totally took me to a bad place. The feeling is indescribable, but I remember I could only sit there with my hands on my face, my brain in intense pain, feeling as though it was just melting into itself. About a week later I started getting horrible headaches. They got worse and worse and worse, “ one user writes.  A deluge of sympathetic user comments follows.

It is for this reason that a few smoke shops will go unaffected by the ban, having ceased selling K2 long ago, or having never sold it to begin with.

“We miss out on a lot of money by not selling it, definitely. We’ve gotten 10-15 calls per day asking for it, especially in the past few weeks. ” said Seth Fox, an employee at Adam’s Apple in West Rogers Park, a smoke shop that refuses to sell K2 or any similar products.

“We’re just not willing to sell a drug that has never been scientifically tested on humans.”

Whether K2 is a relatively harmless marijuana substitute, or a yet-to-be-uncovered highly toxic death herb, worthy of the government’s reefer-madness-like condemnation, one thing is certain: it sells in Chicago, especially right now. Come January 1st, Chicago smoke shops will be taking a big hit.

“The owners of other smoke shops tell us they’re profiting ten to thirty thousand dollars per month off K2 alone,” said Fox. “After the ban, they’re all going to be scrambling for the next JHW-018 substitute. But even after JHW-018 goes illegal, it’ll just go underground, anyway.”

As the dusty Prohibition-era tunnels crisscrossed beneath it attest, Chicago has always been somewhat of an underground city– a city with no shortage of opportunistic spirit– and so, of course, the synthetic marijuana trade will go on, black market. Every K2-selling head shop is already inundated with bulk orders from users eager to exploit K2’s upcoming scarcity, and even non-selling shops are assailed by offers from enterprising individuals shopping homemade K2: JWH-018 can be easily ordered online.

“We get people coming in from the neighborhood sometimes, trying to sell us pounds of synthetic marijuana they made in their basements ,” said Fox. “That’s another problem with people getting high off this stuff: it’s unregulated, so people have no idea what’s giving them that rush.”

The rush is on indeed, and, every day, as the ban deadline approaches, a search of “K2” on Craigslist’s for sale “general” forum brings up more and more ads such as this one: 

“I noticed the news of the banning of synthetic marijuana in your state as of Jan 1. 2011.
I have about 60 packs of 3gs a piece I am willing to sell for a low price. I have too much!
Please contact me email or txt phone. Go Cubs!”

Alienation of her Sox fan market aside, one must admire the entrepreneurial instinct.  

Sample: Barbary Lions, as seen in Game of Thrones

Lions appear often in Ancient Greek and Roman art. This may seem strange, as the capitals of these two empires were both located in Europe, with most of their major cities in northern Africa— nowhere near southern Africa, where we now exclusively find free-roaming lions. But did you know that as of very recently, there were free-roaming lions in northern Africa, which are the lions we see in Greek and Roman art? They were called Barbary lions, and they were greatly admired. 

When we think of lions today, we think of flowing, golden manes. But Barbary lions had darker manes, giving them quite a distinct and exotic look from the south African lions. Despite people’s admiration for them (they are found depicted in Greek and Roman murals, were chosen to battle the gladiators at the Roman Colosseum, and once lived at the Tower of London, along with other royal north African families), it was people’s obsession with them that eventually caused their extinction.

It is commonly thought that the last Barbary lion was killed by a French colonial hunter in 1922. However, some people think that small populations of Barbary lions may have survived, hidden from humans in Morocco and Algeria. Two conservationists were able to find reliable accounts of Barbary lion-sightings up to as late as 1956. These conservationists believe that the Barbary lion actually saw its extinction in 1958, during the French-Algerian war, when the forests near this last sighting were destroyed by warfare.

Whatever the date of the last free-roaming Barbary lion’s death, what is for certain is that now, they live only in zoos. So will we ever be able to take a safari in Casablanca, Morocco, and see the old Barbary lions roaming freely? Possibly, although it will take a lot of work. The first problem would be the need to make sure a conservation area was populated with enough prey animals for the Barbary lions to eat, such as gazelles and Barbary sheep, which are already too close to extinction. With enough effort, it could happen. We owe it to them, since it was humans who took them out of the wild.

Sample: The Most Dangerous Hiking Path in the World

Until recently, the hiking path named “El Caminito Del Rey” (“The King’s Little Way” in Spanish) was widely considered to be the most dangerous in the world, though it was not originally designed to be a hiking trail. In 1905, the boss of an engineering project decided to connect two nearby power plants, by way of a maintenance path. The walkway, less than a meter wide, clings to the side of cliffs with one-hundred-meter drop-offs. In the beginning, the path was safe enough for local school children to walk. The King of Spain at the time even came for a little hike, giving the trail its name.

However, people stopped using the path in favor of other routes, and the maintenance on the path stopped. What made this walkway so dangerous was that most of the wooden guardrails rotted away, making the four-hour trek down the thin path a deadly balancing act. Several hikers died over the years.
Because of this, the Spanish government closed the path down to the public for many years. Recently, though, the government decided to renovate the old walkway, since it did offer some of the most beautiful mountain views in all of Spain. In 2015, the renovation was completed.

Now, every inch of the path is hugged by sturdy guardrails. It has been deemed 100% safe,  300,000 people visit the new, safe El Caminito hiking trail every year. The average visitor still reports that the hike is thrilling, and even frightening, at points. The government— not wanting to completely rob the path of its thrilling reputation— made a section of the trail out of hardened glass, so that hikers find themselves standing on a floor with a clear view down to the deadly canyon floor. Now, hundreds of thousands of people can enjoy the spectacular mountain views that the trail has to offer, without the risk of anyone getting hurt.

          (1) Why did maintenance on the El Caminito path come to an end?

1. The power plants were closed, and worker transportation was the reason        

    the path was originally built.

           2. The path was so dangerous that even maintenance workers refused to    

              walk down it in order to make repairs.

 3. People chose different ways of traveling between the two power plants,

    meaning the path was less and less used.*

           4. World War I drained the area of its maintenance workers, who had

             been drafted to do work on war-related structures.

          (2) What made the El Caminito path so deadly?

            1.Casual hikers went to the trail without knowing it was dangerous, as it

                maintained its reputation as a safe pathway for decades.

 2. Broken planks: the heavy foot traffic of school children’s thick shoes,

     combined with the worker’s boots, began causing planks to break.

            3. The area was prone to sudden thunderstorms, which brought strong

               winds to the trail, occasionally blowing them off the trail.

            4. The rotting away of the guardrails that were originally along every                  

                 inch of the path, preventing people from falling to their deaths.*

          (3) The government decided to renovate the old pathway because

 1.the power plants were reopening, now as nuclear power plants, and

 workers would need to use the path again.

  2. it offered some of the prettiest mountain views in Spain, and would    

  likely attract many tourists, if it were made safe.*

  3.the King of Spain commented publicly that the pathway was an ugly

  embarrassment to the country, and needed to be fixed.

 4.there was a heritage conservation prize being offered in 2015, for Best

  Renovated Hiking Path, and Spain wanted to win.

(4) How did the government keep a bit of simulated danger and excitement alive on the new, safe pathway?

1. It used a hard glass material for sections of the path, giving hikers a clear

  view, one hundred meters down, to the canyon floor beneath their feet.*

2. A flexible material was used for sections of the pathway, giving the path a      

  shaky feeling as hikers walked.

  3. It made the path rise and fall in areas it previously had not, giving the hike                   

     more of a roller coaster feeling.

4. In place of guardrails, the government used tightly spaced rope in

  sections, to give a slightly less stable feeling at hikers’ sides.

Why You DON’T Want to Pick on a Trans Woman on a Saturday Night in Colombia. First Ever Excerpt From My New Autobiography

So, you are one of the first people to read a single word of the 400 page monster I’ve been toiling over for 2 years,

“How I Abandoned a Book Deal with Penguin/Random House, Partied Away the Advance, and Ended up an Online Gig Worker. And How You Can Do it Too!”.

I’m not too far from finished, so I figured excerpts can start soon. This was actually a scene I currently have CUT from the book. I was looking at all these outtakes yesterday and realized this little action portion would be good for this blog. True story from 2018:


It was Saturday night on calle la setetenta (seventieth street), the big weekly show, the night and place where anything could happen, any deal could be made, any manner of trouble could come walking down the street, preening with temptation. I was sitting under a tree inside a giant concrete pot that made for good sitting and people watching—the same tree under which I’d seen a trans woman beat the shit out of a Colombiano a couple weeks prior, with the man screaming “Ayudamee, ayudaameee” (help me, help meee!) as his face absorbed every blow. She had taken off her red heels, holding one in her left hand, occasionally switching from a punch to a heel strike to the face, inducing winces from onlookers.

Since it was about midnight, and of course, right on the wild wild seventieth, and right outside the triad of bars just a block up the street from my apartment, I figured it had been a case of a tipsy, machismo Colombiano denigrating the trans woman, and getting the surprise of his life. As my friend Alan from New York had said,

“Don’t think one of these trans won’t beat the shit out of you. They’ve taken so much shit during their lives, have so much built up inside of them, you DO NOT want to be the one to make her snap.”

Follor me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jas0nharringt0n

By the Way: I’m Been Living in Colombia for 6 of the past 8 years

Right now I live in Medellin. the home of Pablo Escobar. Not only do I live in the same city as El Padrino did, I live in the same neighborhood he lived in most of his life: Castilla. I live in the ghetto. Even the majority of people from this city refuse to come to my house, due to the reputation of my neighborhood. But I’m a very friendly guy who loves to make people laugh any way I can, so the people of this hood have taken me in as one of their own. I am the only English speaker within a 20 mile radius, mas o menos.

I haven’t seen much of the legendary violence of this neighborhood, save for one shooting I witnessed literally directly in front of my building in which a young man was hit in the chest five times by a man with a revolver. Drive-by. The victim lay there, blood pooling on his chest, as the police took their sweet time taping off the crime scene. And another time I heard what must have been a shotgun go off just a few blocks away, followed by dozens of cops. I’m not going into many details about the utter insanity that has been the past decade or so of my life: to start, you can read my Wikipedia page to get an idea. The two-part autobiography I’m working on tells the rest. But I figured I should make this clear, because in the future I might make some references– like tomorrow’s post, for instance– that will take place in Colombia, and I wanted to make it clear. Also, there will be some pictures coming of my neighborhood, soon.

Well I found a picture of me holding a stack of big Colombian bills like some kind of playa. I need to get beautiful pics on here
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