Life As It Happens

A Personal Record

[This post originally appeared on May 2, 2021]

So I’m at the San Leandro Marina, getting ready to go for a 7-mile run. That’s part of my training for Not the Monterey Half Marathon – more about that later. It’s a beautiful Sunday morning, I’m feeling good, and as ready as I can ever be to jog/walk seven miles.

I’m parallel parking our new plug-in hybrid Chrysler Pacifica minivan in a marked space along the road, and as I’m doing it, I incorrectly estimate where the front of the car is (hint: a lot further ahead of me than it is in the Prius). I manage to tap the rear bumper of the car in front of me.


A 40-year-old black woman in running clothes jumps out of the car that I had just bumped, understandably pissed off. I immediately mask up, get out of the car, profusely apologizing from the start. We look and neither of us can see any evidence of the bump. I offer to give her my insurance info. She says, “Don’t worry about it, but learn to park your damn car.” Which, fair enough.

I get back in the car, assemble my running paraphenalia, put on sunscreen and head out. The woman whose car I had hit had already left her car and headed off down the same direction toward the ocean-side path that everybody takes. I warm up, get my tunes and GPS fired up, and start my running app.

Half a mile into my run, I realize that I better not do any math in my head (“What percentage of 7.0 is 0.5?”) so I need to think about something else. That is when, to quote Elena Catherine, I get an idea from my brain. 

Praising all the necessary people, including Lynn Conway (look her up) for the smartphone, I continue walking and tapping into my Galaxy S9. Then I strap it back onto my arm and resume running. 

As I’d hoped, a few minutes later, I see the woman whose car I’d bumped (she had a recognizable gait). I put my mask on, turn off my tunes, and catch up with her. She looks at me, and even though she’s wearing reflective sunglasses and a mask, I’m pretty sure she’s not smiling.

“Ma’am, I felt really bad about bumping your car back there. But I saw your sweatshirt…” I hold out the phone so she can see the screenshot of the $100 donation I sent to Black Girls Run

I think I see her cheekbones rise. I definitely see the thumbs-up she gives me. “I appreciate you. You have a good day.” “Yes ma’am, you too. Enjoy your run.” 

Even with the extended slow pace while I was tapping into the phone, I get the seven miles in under 90 minutes, which was my goal when I first set out. My running app puts up a sticker that says it’s a New Personal Record – I’ve had the app for 2-3 years now and haven’t run that far since it’s been turned on. I have 7-8 half-marathons under my water belt, so seven miles isn’t a personal record. 

But having my brain come up with an idea for such a quick and relevant apology – I think my app should have given me a Personal Record sticker for that. 


Thinking of a Protest Vote?

[This post was first put up on October 2, 2020, shortly before the Biden/Trump presidential election]

I have an acquaintance in the poker community with whom I’ve been communicating for the past year or so. I hope we’ll be friends soon enough, but for now, Covid means that I can’t travel to Las Vegas to meet him. But we’ve had some good discussions and he’s taught me a bunch about poker – I’m happy with that.

Anyway, we got onto politics pretty early on, and quickly discovered that we were politically congruent. At least, I thought we were until a few days ago. Then we had the following exchange:

Me: [Responding to his most proximate email] “Wait. Are you thinking about not voting?

Him: “Strongly considering Green Party.” 

I had to sit with that for a day. Finally a couple of days ago, I sat with my coffee in the dawn hours and wrote to him. I didn’t hear back from him, but two days later, I heard back – from his wife:

My name is [Debbie] – I’m [Rob’s] wife. I wanted to reach out because he shared with me the contents of your email re: the stakes of the 2020 election. I have also been trying to convince him to vote for Biden/Harris rather than the Green Party ticket, and I found your reasoning both eloquent and moving. Would it be alright if I shared it with family and on social media, crediting you as the author? Since the correspondence was private, I wanted to check with you personally to be sure.

I rarely get told I’m eloquent, but more importantly, if she thinks my little email could move one vote from anybody else to Biden, she’s welcome to take out a billboard on Tropicana Avenue. I figured I’d go ahead and publish my email here (with her permission, of course). Maybe it’ll move you to vote for Biden. Maybe it’ll move somebody else to vote for Biden. Like I said, if it moves one vote to Biden from anywhere else (including “no vote at all”) I’ll be ecstatic. 

Here’s my email to “Rob,” minimally edited and cleaned up. 

Hi Rob,

So, you’re an intelligent, thoughtful guy. I’ll give you my speech and be done  – either it persuades you or it doesn’t. As you know from our conversations, I can get long-winded. I will attempt to be concise – forgive me if I’m not and don’t let that cloud my point.

The meta-theme: “An election is not a marriage, it’s a bus.” [1] That is, you are not looking for a decades-long relationship with a candidate – you are looking for a bus that takes you in the general direction of your destination, the closer the better. 

Here are my key points:

  1. If we don’t win this election, there may not be an election in 2024. The damage to our institutions, indeed, our very democracy, may be such that we are spiraling toward failed-state status rather than working to improve our lives, those of people in our communities, and the people of the world around us. [2]
  2. The people who will be most affected by a Trump victory are the most vulnerable members of our community. You and I will (probably) be okay, even if things go very badly. You’re skilled, talented, and have resources to provide for yourself. Further, perhaps most importantly, you’re a straight white male. I’m a straight white male. I argue that sitting on the sidelines, or using our vote as a protest, is leveraging our white male privilege. The stakes are not so high for us as they are for many others. If you want to be on the side of the weaker, more vulnerable, marginalized members of our community, then use the one bullet in your gun to aim for the key target – not fire it into the air.
  3. One very specific issue: climate change. You know the clock is ticking. If Trump is reelected, the American political and industrial bus will go in the opposite direction from where it needs to go. If Biden is elected, it will go in the right direction – I hope you will stipulate that. Will it go fast enough? Probably not. Will it go dead on course to what you believe is the right destination? Almost certainly not. But it will go in the right direction. The climate change activists will have a seat at the table. In a Trump administration, they will be actively battled. 

I’ll wrap this up with a perspective. I’m 63 years old, and have had an absurdly good life. As I’ve told many people, if a doctor were to say to me tomorrow, “You have three months to live,” I would be sad, but I wouldn’t feel cheated. I’ve had more joy and grand experiences in my life than any one human should expect. I’m on a life freeroll at this point. But Rob, I’ve got a 5-year-old granddaughter. She’s an amazing little girl who spent 90 minutes yesterday in her wetsuit at the beach playing in the surf. She’s asked me when I’m taking her scuba diving so she can see the sharks. She deserves a shot at a decent life, but I don’t like her odds for that, not least because of climate change.

Sadly, I disagree with your belief/hope that a meltdown this year would lead to a progressive wave in 2024 that would send a bus in the exact right direction at light speed. Indeed, I fear it could lead to a complete societal breakdown.

Nevada is purple, and will probably go for Biden, but that’s not a given. Please, go vote for Joe Biden and the congressional Democrats. Don’t do it for me – I’m going to be okay either way, and if I’m not, fair enough. But do it for my granddaughter and for the guy who makes the tortillas at your favorite taqueria. Those people need your vote.

Thanks for reading.

Best, Lee

[1] Editor’s note: I didn’t mention this in the email, but I am far from the first person to use this analogy. But I’m a sucker for a good analogy and this is a great one.

[2] Remember, I wrote this before the election, and crucially, before January 6, 2021. I had no idea of how close we’d come to a successful coup d’etat.


Jack of the Wood

[This article goes back to January, 2011 when I was living in Asheville, North Carolina. There’s a legendary pub there called “Jack of the Wood”. Every Thursday night was (is?) “Bluegrass Jam” night. The locals and tourists come down to eat, drink, and listen to live bluegrass music. The local musicians come down to pick and get free beer.]

I’ve talked plenty of times about the picking at Jack of the Wood. And I’ve often wished that I had pictures. I mean, every week we see flashes going off throughout the room – I assume we’re becoming part of somebody’s “My visit to Asheville” Facebook album.

But last week, a guy named Jai Beasley spent the whole evening taking pictures and I persuaded him to sell me a few images. Here’s how I spend my Thursday evenings.

Picking at Jack of the Wood, early 2011

There’s a guy who was a regular there back then – Jon Stickley. Jon’s a stupendously nice guy and I’m honored to pick with him. The night that all these pictures got taken, I turned to John and said, “Do you ever think about how this is kind of magic? I mean, a bunch of people – many of whom barely know each other… we take these instruments made of wood and string, and this amazing music comes out of it and people are happy and smile and dance…”

Jon, a professional bluegrass musician, stared back at me. “Man, that’s all I think about.”

Scott Woody, probably playing Clinch Mountain Backstep

[Updates from 2022]

John now fronts his own trio, the “Jon Stickley Trio”. You’ll note that the fiddle player in that trio, Lindsay Pruett, appears in some of the pictures from 2011.

Another reflection from ten years on. You’ll note that few of the musicians are smiling. It’s not that we’re not having fun – it’s that there’s a lot of concentration going on. I am reminded of a jam that we had at my house in Nashville when we lived there. We were fortunate and some very fine pickers showed up. I had also invited a member of my extended family who lives in Nashville. He plays guitar but is not really conversant with the bluegrass thing. During one song, I leaned over to him and said, “Do you want a break (solo)?” He shook his head. “No man – this is serious business.”

He meant that the music itself was serious business that required focus and concentration. And I also inferred that he didn’t feel comfortable taking a solo among the hot pickers around us. I get it – I’ve been there plenty of times. Weaving magic from wood and string is, indeed, serious business.


Living my Best Life

I don’t remember when I first performed music in front of people. But I was probably doing piano recitals around the age of 7-8 (1965, if you’re keeping score at home). I sang with the Landon Boy’s Choir on the Ranger Hal TV show in Washington, D.C. sometime around 1966 or 1967. And from then on, I was on one musical stage or another pretty much non-stop through college. I played in orchestras and jazz bands at school, and sang in the madrigal choir (yes, we wore silly clothes). I formed 2-3 rock bands and played at shows and dances. I played bass in the Duke Symphony, sang bass in the Duke Chapel Choir, and played viol de gamba in the Early Music group. I was the electric bass player for a series of performances of the Bernstein Mass, and the double bass player for a series of performances of Handel’s Messiah.

I loved it. I loved playing music with other people, I loved seeing the audience respond to the music, and the musicians respond to the audience. Yes, applause is the single most addictive drug there is – don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I’ve rarely felt so alive as when I’ve been on a stage making music with good musicians.

Somehow, from the time that I left Duke until the past few years, I haven’t “played out,” much, as the expression goes. There are some number of reasons for that – none of them good. There were a few times when I’d have a regular opportunity to play publicly, such as my stint in Asheville, when I was jamming at Jack of the Wood. For a few years in there, Lisa and I sang in Schola Cantorum, a community choir on the Bay Area peninsula. It was a blast and I’m so glad we did it. But playing music didn’t occupy the space in my life that I wish it had. Why? Meh, that’s a topic for me and my therapist, but I’m here to tell you I’m back.

Few months ago, I bumped into Chris Quale, who is the band dad for a hot bluegrass band called Crying Uncle. His two sons, Miles and Teo, are half of the band, and he’s the bus driver, roadie, sound guy, manager, and CFO. But when he’s not that, or w*rking at his j*b, he’s a passionate, and very good acoustic guitar player.

Crying Uncle Bluegrass Band

Chris invited me to pick with his mandolin buddy, Nick Khadder. They then invited me to invite my son, John Haupert (also a mandolin player) to join us. After a few evenings of us picking together, I thought, “You know, we’re actually good enough to play in front of people.” That’s when the universe giggled, and sent me an email saying that the Gather Kitchen, Bar and Market in Berkeley was looking for bluegrass bands to play at their alliteratively perfect Bluegrass Brunch.

Now, there’s a fact of the bluegrass world, first elucidated to me by Chris Flanders: “A gig is both necessary and sufficient to make a collection of musicians a band.” So I told the people at Gather that I had a band, and I told my fellow musicians that we had a gig. While neither of those statements was exactly true on its own, by the Flanders Theorem, together, they were both true.

For our first gig, we enlisted Nick’s daughter, Lucy, a dynamite fiddler. She’s also a very good bass player, but I won’t let her near my bass for fear that the band would then fire me. Also, I can’t play fiddle, so it made more sense for me to play bass. Anyway, the five of us had a blast the first time out, and the folks at Gather (both staff and patrons) seemed to enjoy us.

The other instrument Lucy Khadder plays well

We went back on Saturday, January 29th, 2022. Unfortunately, Lucy couldn’t join us because she was in the recording studio (I can’t make this stuff up). But Chris can walk around his house and randomly tap three different very good fiddle players on the shoulder. In this particular random walk, he tapped Teo (a member of Crying Uncle) and Nikko.

So I spent a Saturday morning having an inexcusable amount of fun. I was playing music with friends in front of an appreciative crowd. John’s brother David, his wife Mary, daughter Elena, and my mother-in-law Liz, turned out to support us, as did members of Chris and Nick’s families.

I am an absurdly fortunate person, and try to lead with gratitude. I am thankful for my bandmates, and their families (including mine) for supporting this time away from other family responsibilities. I am grateful to all the musicians who have inspired and taught me over the years, so I’d play the best I could. And I am appreciative of the people at Gather – particularly Jodi Munson – who gave us a place to play and responded to our music so positively.

I also need to emphasize the sublime joy of playing music with young people. Every tine I get to pick with “kids” (these days, anybody under 30) I am renewed and invigorated. Their youthful energy pushes me and makes me play better. Importantly, their playing is a promise that people will play music as long as I live, and beyond. I find this gratifying. Miles, Teo, and Nikko Quale, and Lucy Khadder all randomly drop into our backyard fire pit picking sessions on occasion. When one of them shows up with a fiddle, the quality of the music triples, and all of us older guys just smile at each other. And speaking of gratitude, what a blessing to have these kids – all with absurdly busy lives – take time out to come pick with us.

What you see and hear here is not professional quality, either the video itself or the playing. But it is, as Chris says, objectively good music. And check out at 15:30, when John steps over right next to me. Musically speaking, it makes all the sense for the bass player and mandolin player in a bluegrass band to be close to each other – each of us is half of the drum kit. But that wasn’t what I was thinking about right then. No, I was thinking, “I’m playing live music with my son on a sunny afternoon while our audience eats brunch and digs the tunes. This is my best life.”

P.S., Teo isn’t in the video because who knows why, but the second set sparkled (a bluegrass brunch sparkly second set) because of him. So:

Visualize him playing an instrument with half as many strings, tucked up under his chin
Diving Family

Hawaii 2021

It was right when the Covid vaccine became a reality that I knew we’d have to book the trip sooner than later. The entire nation – the entire world – had been under a pall for a year, and nobody was traveling. Then, in late 2020, it became clear that vaccines were right around the corner. At the time, we thought that would be banishment of Covid, as we’d banished polio and smallpox. Silly us, but that was the belief.

I knew that when people realized that travel was an actual possibility, they’d start booking vacations as fast as their browsers could get to Expedia.

We’d been selling our granddaughter, Elena, on Hawaii since she was old enough to look at pictures of tropical fish. Apparently she bought what we were selling because it reached a point that she’d hear a mention of Hawa’i, and say, “When am I going to Hawai’i?”

I wanted to be able to say, “For your 7th birthday,” so I planned and booked a vacation house for December of 2021 in September of 2020. Yes, the others involved looked at me askance, but such long-term planning feels quite normal to me. Like I said, I thought that a covid vaccine reality would cause a run on vacation destinations like had never been seen in modern times.

We ended up here, along Ali’i Drive, right at the Mile 3 marker.

John and I landed at the Kona airport on December 13th, and had an evening to do grocery shopping and get dinner at On the Rocks. And then enjoy our first sunset from the upstairs porch:

Looking south from our Kona vacation home

The next day, Lisa and Liz flew in (I got real good at airport pick-up and drop-off by the time we were done), and got settled. The day after that, David, Mary, and Elena flew in, got their own car, and just rocked up at the house. Elena was immediately in love with the place because of this:

Elena’s favorite part of the house

Okay, so Elena’s favorite part of the house wasn’t the pool. It was the elevator. The house has three floors, and while there are outdoor stairs connecting all three, the elevator is way cooler if you’re seven years old. But the arrangement (the stairs, not the elevator) allowed Elena, and then Elena and Amelia, to flow effortlessly among three floors of family and friends.

Our first morning, we all went down to Kahalu’u Beach, just two miles south, and the most popular snorkeling beach on the Kona Coast.

Kahalu’u Beach Park

Elena had been practicing with her snorkel and mask all summer, getting ready for this day:

And was zipping all over the community pool looking at pretend critters and practicing all the critter signs we taught her. But you will note that she’s not wearing fins. She wasn’t the least interested in the fins, and even as we loaded the car to drive down to Kahalu’u, she said, “I don’t want my fins.” We took ’em anyway.

We got there, and got her into her wetsuit. Which was just barely big enough for her by the time December rolled around. But fortunately her dad knew a technique that he’d seen me use on his brother 20-odd years ago:

Then she sat down on the rocks at the edge of the beach, and saw dozens of other people with fins on.

“Let me try my fins.”

We put the fins on her. She then stuck her face in the water, and saw a couple of yellow tangs, a few sergeant majors, and maybe a black durgeon swimming around.

She was gone. I mean, she was in the water, hauling after those fish, just as she’d been doing in the swimming pool. What immediately struck me was how good her fin technique was. Most people, when they first get fins on, bicycle their legs. The goal is to keep a slightly bent knee, and kick from the hip. For whatever reason, that’s exactly what Elena did, and she motored through the water like a speedboat.

“I guess one of us better follow her.”

Which is what we’d do on every snorkeling outing for the next 2.5 weeks. This first day, we all kicked to the outer part of the park area, where the water was a bit deeper and there were few people. With multiple spotters around her, Elena would zip from person to person – whoever had something interesting to see.

Pretty soon, John found a moray eel, and yelled to the group that there was a moray under him. Elena appeared out of nowhere, and was yelling into her snorkel, pointing with one hand, and giving the “moray” sign with the other, above the water, so everybody would know.

We learned that 30-45 minutes was about the limit of what we could do before Elena became chilled and/or exhausted. But I cannot overstate the joy and fun that we’d have during that time period. Elena would rarely have her face out of the water, and within a few days, she was free-diving down to 5-7 feet to get a closer look at the critters.

Snorkel buddies

Snorkeling with Elena was easily one of the top one or two highlights of my trip.

The next awesome thing was Shannon and Amelia Ozceri showing up. Unfortunately, Berend couldn’t get away because of w*rk, but we were delighted to have 2/3 of the Ozceri clan there. When I went to pick them up at the airport, Elena said, “I wanna go!”

Welcome to Kona!

From that point on, Elena and Amelia were pretty much inseparable. There was occasionally some friction, which is to be expected. But mostly they had a blast with each other. Sharon and Amelia shared a room up on the 3rd floor, the same floor that David, Mary, and Elena were on. So early in the morning, we’d hear feet running around upstairs as the girls got breakfast and ready for the day.

You’re disturbing our Minecraft
Do you have a game better than Minecraft?

Unfortunately, we never got a picture of it, but the girls also commandeered the walk-in closet in the master bedroom and turned it into a fort. They would sit in there for long periods, Elena drawing, and Amelia reading Harry Potter.

Except when they were in the pool.

How we spent our afternoons
Take the picture quickly, we need to get in.
Look out below! (the perspective is wrong – Elena is not jumping on Amelia)

Maybe my favorite part of the whole trip was the family dinners at the outside table. As the sun was setting, we’d prepare meals in one or both kitchens, and carry them down the stairs. Then we’d sit 15′ from the ocean and 5′ from the pool, eat and visit.

Shelly and Kevin at dinner

A couple of nights, we brought in restaurant food, but mostly we just cooked simple meals. Pretty soon, Amelia and Elena would get bored with the grown-ups and retreat to the lounge chairs next to the pool. So they were content and we were content to enjoy the evening and watch the sunset.

Evenings – well, they went pretty quick. It was time for the girls to get ready for bed, and most of us would settle down soon after dark and think about what was coming the next day. Which always started with coffee and…

There were a couple of women who would come out to surf and enter the water right below us, always between 6:30-7:00am. So we’d drink coffee with the big windows open and watch them head out. We could also see the surfers, a little further down the coast, catching the first waves of the day.

We finally got the group all together when Shelly and Kevin made it in from Austin. With that, there were 12 of us, and it was absolutely glorious chaos. They were on the ground floor with John, and they’d stay up half the night, then sleep in. But they were always up for whatever was going on.

One day, we all went out on a dive boat with Jack’s Dive Locker – it was a private charter, so it was just our family. Lisa, John, and I were on scuba, and everybody else snorkeled. Amelia and Elena lost their minds snorkeling at the dive sites, and were constantly peppering the guide with questions about what they saw.

Dive boat in Hawaii? Yes, thanks – don’t mind if I do

Another day, David, Mary, Elena, Lisa, Shannon, and Amelia went up north to Kohala to ride horses across the pastures there. Both Shannon and Lisa are horsewomen of decades of experience, but they said they’d never done something like that. It was obviously an amazing experience for all.

One day, we all went down south to try a beach down there, but it didn’t really work out. What did work out was stopping for lunch at a cafe. There was no way we were going to get a seat inside the cafe, and it was raining, so we had a picnic in the car.

And that’s what’s amazing about our crowd – when it’s raining, and things don’t go as planned, nobody panics. We just switch to Plan B. Or Plan C. Elena and Amelia think that Plans B-F are just how life goes. In fact, Elena learned about “Plan B” from the Kratz Brothers, so when you say, “We’re switching to Plan B,” she just rolls with it. Including eating pizza in the back of a car in a cafe parking lot.

We got the Turo car with the Picnic in Back option

David, Mary, Elena, Shannon, and Amelia went kayaking at Captain Cook one day. They said the snorkeling boat crowds were insane, but I’m pretty sure they had a good time…

Go over in that direction, Mom.

One evening, we all went out to a luau. It was at the King Kamehameha, i.e. the in-town luau that’s been there for 20 or 30 years. Watching the girls watching the keikeis perform was worth the whole thing.

Elena’s birthday (known by others as “Christmas”) came toward the end of the trip. We wanted to make the house a little special around Christmas time, but Christmas trim pickings were slim. However, somehow I found the perfect things:

Santa and reindeer found us, even in Kona. Maybe the unicorns lit the way.

Finally, on December 29th, the last of us (Lisa, Liz, David, Mary, Elena, and I) closed up the house and headed to the airport. John and I had arrived on the 13th. It was time to go home, but it was hard to leave. What sticks with me are the memories…

  • Coffee with the windows open watching the surfers and paddle boarders go out.
  • Snorkeling with the girls and watching them lose their minds at the ocean.
  • Extended pool sessions until we dragged blue-lipped girls, kicking and screaming, into towels for post-swim snacks.
  • Board games in the evening
  • Renewing and creating bonds among the Haupert/Jones constellation members. Shannon, Amelia, Kevin, Shelly – they are family to us and we are all blessed to have them. @Berend – it sucked more than anything ever sucked that you weren’t there.
  • Dinners around the big table, with the beach 30′ behind us, and the sun setting.
  • Taking Kevin for his first two scuba dives ever. We had a blast, and at no time on either dive did we die.
  • Christmas/birthday celebration with impossibly tacky, but perfect, lit-up unicorns.
  • Four generations of our clan at the luau.

Things flowed, plans changed. Restaurants were full or couldn’t seat us because they were short of staff (covid). Rain came and kayaking had to be postponed. No matter what, we had a blast, and I was blessed to be part of it.

[To see any of these images full size, just right-click and select “Open in new tab]


Cabbage Patch Doll

[Originally published November of 2019]

[This is a story of Jeni Whaley and me diving Nigali Pass in Fiji.]

So we were getting ready for the third and final visit to “Nigali Pass” today. It’s a sand channel between the open sea and a lagoon. During tide changes, a current zooms through the channel, which is then full of barracuda, sharks, and other large silver fish. If the current is going out of the lagoon to the sea, the water is full of sand and stuff from the relatively shallow water of the lagoon. But when it is incoming, the water is clear from the outside, so that’s when we dive it.

Mark Rothenstein, the semi-professional taxonomist who’s on board with us, said, “Yeah, we dived it on an outgoing current once, just to see what it was like. It was like 15’ visibility with sharks suddenly coming into view right next to you. Once was enough.” 

Almost at the end of this dive is a little cut in the side of the channel where there’s natural seating for 8-10 people (“The Bleachers”). Y2K Fiji trip veterans will remember us sitting in there with the sharks circling over and around us looking for the fish head that Sam had hidden below the seats. 

The first two times we did the dive, we stopped at the Bleachers and watched. But the fact is that we’ve been seeing many more sharks before we got to the bleachers and then (weirdly) afterwards, toward the end of the channel. 

Another interesting twist: there’s a much smaller sand channel (hereinafter “the garden path”) that leaves the main channel, passes behind the Bleachers, and goes over the reef and into the lagoon. It’s an exquisite and easy trip back into the lagoon, with tons of soft and hard corals, and thousands of fish. Jeni, Andi, and I had followed it yesterday after leaving the Bleachers, and pronounced it awesome.

More plot thickening: if you follow the “regular” path out of the channel, you come across a field of Turbinaria reniformis coral which has been named “Cabbage Patch”. When you google it, you’ll see why. We had a brief glimpse of the Cabbage Patch on our first visit yesterday (and I have no idea if we saw it on Y2K). 

So it looks kinda like this:

The path through Nigali Pass

We had all kinda gotten over the bleachers, and Jeni was determined to get serious time on Cabbage Patch. She said yesterday, “When we do Nigali tomorrow, you and I are skipping the bleachers, we’re having a hot minute with the sharks in the channel. Then we’re going straight to Cabbage Patch. If you can take us up the garden path and get us there, great. But if you get lost and I don’t get to Cabbage Patch, you won’t believe the amount of shit you’re going to be in.”

Here’s the thing: you can 100% get to Cabbage Patch by just following the main channel out, keeping the reef on your right. You literally couldn’t miss Cabbage Patch that way. However, Garden Path is magical, and the path via the main channel is surgey and turbid as the lagoon and open sea water mix. Yesterday, by myself, I came out of Garden Path, got a little turned around, but ultimately found Cabbage Patch. I was 98% sure that I could find it accurately this time (“Come out of Garden Path, turn left, there’s Cabbage Patch – can’t miss”, said the divemasters). 

Jeni was more than happy to skip Garden Path to ensure Cabbage Patch. I was not, and was willing to risk her wrath.

We dropped in with Scott, the rising cruising director – Senior/retiring cruise director Chad had Andi with him for some last tweaking of her drift diving course. Scott, Jeni, 20-trip Nai’a veteran Bruce, and I floated down the channel, enjoying the sleeping whitetip sharks, and the expected gimongous school of barracuda. We got deeper, and the grey reef sharks started to appear, passing us headed upstream, and then circling back to do it again. All four of us stopped toward the right-hand edge of the channel at about 90’. That’s the problem with stopping there. The bleachers are at 55’, so if you stop where we did, you’re a lot deeper – air and no-decompression time both go relatively quickly.

But the show was too good to miss. We all lay on the bottom at 90’, held gently onto rocks, and watched the sharks swim all around us. The longer we were there, the more comfortable they got with us and they passed very near without altering their regular pattern.

After ten (?) minutes, I tapped Jeni and with a raised eyebrow pointed up toward the Garden Path. She nodded, and off we went. The path shallows quickly up to about 50’ or so, and my computer immediately forgave me for the deep time. 

We got up into the path, and a lone whitetip shark came scurrying down past us, as if it realized it was supposed to be in the main pass with its larger brethren. Jeni didn’t even see it – she was focused on the corals and fish playing in the bright sunlight (yes, even at 50’). 

We had originally agreed that Jeni would lead the dive, but at some point, she indicated for me to go in front. I knew pretty much exactly where I was. A couple of minutes on, Jeni pointed in the general direction of where we thought Cabbage Patch was. But I wanted to make it all the way to deep water, where I could be sure a left turn would take us there. I wasn’t keen on going up over the top of the pretty shallow reef to get there. I indicated to Jeni we should continue a bit on our course.

A minute or two later, I saw a short detour at about 10:00 and damned if there wasn’t the reef side of Cabbage Patch staring at me. I pointed it out to Jeni, who signed “Well, why are we sitting here?” I was enjoying the view from the reef side – the yellow barred bream and fusiliers were buzzing around that side – but it was indeed pretty shallow and surgey. 

Nigali Cabbage Patch

We swam clockwise around it and found a couple of bare rock hand-holds at 20’ on the lagoon side. I guess we were there for 15 minutes, watching the show and doing no work, consuming almost no air, and effectively doing our safety-stop during the highlight of the show.

One of my favorite characters in the play was a jack, maybe 12-15” long, who would occasionally swim through the cloud of fusiliers above us, obviously with murder and mayhem on his mind. The school would part, and he’d depart, awaiting his next sortie. 

The sunlight stayed as strong as it had all morning, with excellent visibility, even on the lagoon side. We had a living picture postcard in front of us, and neither wanted to leave. I’d look at Jeni, her eyes were dancing around the scene with a near beatific smile on her face.

Finally it was time to go, we lifted up and floated out into the blue. With our nitrogen debt long paid off, we simply drifted up to the surface. We were a long way from either of the skiffs, but after basically a week of this, we knew they’d be onto us quickly. Jeni raised a lazy arm (“Just like calling an Uber” I said) and Fijian Lee came and picked us up. Just as we got into the boat, Scott and Bruce surfaced some distance away; we went and got them.

“Maybe the best dive of… of my life.” said Jeni, aka Cabbage Patch Doll.

Jeni, post-dive

P.S. When I got back, I saw Mark the fish geek. His eyes were shining. “How was the dive, Mark?” “I got a lifer.” “Lifer?” “Black butterfly. First time I’ve ever seen it in Fiji, much less shot it. I was starting to think it wasn’t actually in Fiji.” Each of us dives in his or her own way.


To Elena, from Aby: Reading

[Originally published in September of 2020]

Dear Elena,
You are reading this little essay. That seems obvious, of course, but have you ever wondered how you learned to read?

It’s an extraordinary story. I say extraordinary because I’ve never seen anything like it. Recall that I wasn’t around when your dad or your Uncle John learned to read. Maybe every child learning to read is an equally compelling story – now I wonder.

But I know your story and it’s worth telling.

You have been around books since birth, a gift which cannot be overstated. My parents, Hunter and Peggy, got to meet you only once. I think you were three or four months old. They had a long weekend with you and that was your one encounter with them for your life. And yet within those short days, here’s what you did:

Peggy holds you, while Hunter reads to you. March 2015

I’ll leave some more images at the end of this piece so you can get a sense of the role books have played in your life. But your parents have been reading to you at bedtime since, well, forever. And every adult in your family has sat and read to you. So early on, you were intrigued with the whole process. How did these scribbles become magical stories? Here’s you, age two and a half, studying a shopping list I had prepared. This was at Glacier National Park in Montana. You wanted to understand how this piece of paper could tell me what we needed at the store – you sat and studied on it for quite a while.

You reading a shopping list at Glacier National Park, July 2017

Or look at the picture at the top of this piece. There’s you and grandmother Lisa, whom you’ve called “Ana” since you understood that people had names. [1] We had borrowed you from your parents for an overnight in Monterey, and stopped at a taqueria in Seaside on the way home. There you sit, focused on the menu as if you were deciding between fish tacos and a quesadilla.

And now fast forward to 2020. During the 2019-2020 school year, you were in an extraordinary preschool in Berkeley, called Via Nova. I don’t know how much you remember of it, or will ever remember, but I can’t imagine a better place for you. The environment there was positive, creative, and the teachers just constantly loved on the kids. Maybe one day I’ll write an essay about Via Nova. But when Covid hit in March of 2020, Via Nova, like all the schools, shut down. All your daily learning and creative opportunities vanished, almost overnight.

As millions of parents the world around scrambled to find ways to occupy and educate their kids, Lisa decided she was going to teach you to read. She researched online and ultimately found a phonics program called Logic of English. And then she dove into it as she does with anything that has her attention, but this time you were on the trip with her. Four or five days a week, she studied the upcoming lesson, created the necessary training materials, and got the workbook ready. And then she and you put your heads down and got to it. Sometimes you were a dog, and she would bark, to which you’d respond in English (you were always a very clever, special dog).

You made a book that you could read on your own.

Suddenly, the alphabet as we knew it vanished. It became “ah-a-ā”, “bә”, “kә-sә”, “dә”, etc. And man, it was slow going. You’d crawl around under the table, but Lisa just wouldn’t give up. Phoneme after phoneme got seared into your brain. Eventually, well, I remember walking past the table and hearing, “pә”. “i”. “gә”. “pә-i-gә.” “Pi…,” “Pig.” “PIG!” And feeling shivers. I was listening to you learn to read your first words.
What I love about phonics is that it is the essence of “Teach somebody to fish…” You can be taught that the symbol “cat” means the four-legged feline critter. But you have no idea what to do with the word “bat.” However, give you the phonemes – the basic building blocks of the language – and you have the tools you need to learn every word.
Once that basic phoneme foundation was created, you became unstoppable. I watched in wonder as you and Lisa had hour-long phonics sessions, you matching words with pictures, scrambling pieces of paper with phonemes on them to form words, and laughing with delight as you worked out another word. Here’s you with a book that you created from the phonics program. You had to identify and sound out each word and then you got to create a book of words you could spell. And thus could read an entire book:

It’s now September of 2020 – six months after you and Ana first sat down at the dinner table at your house with the phonics book. Ana has, indeed, taught you to read. If she stopped teaching you right now, you’d still be well on your way to reading for life. But be very sure that, at this moment, your reading lessons with Ana are far from over. There are another 6-7 lessons in the set that you’re working on now, and then I think you move onto Book 2. I know I’ll be sad when phonics lessons are over – I guess Lisa will be heartbroken.

For now, though, we are experiencing the avalanche of your reading journey. Everywhere you go, everything you look at, becomes an opportunity to sound out a word. Last night was Friday – the regular Sleepover Friday, followed by Pancake Saturday. You looked at my pajama shirt…

Can you read this?

“Lllll.” “iiii” [Me: “it’s the long ‘i’ here – like ‘bike.'”] “Eye…” “Fә”. “Llll-eye-fә.” “Life!”
“i” “sә”. “i-sә”. “Is!”
“Gә” “oooooo” [“‘oo’ like ‘book'”] “oo”. “dә”. “Gә-oo-dә”. “Good.”
“Life Is Good! And a guitar!”

Life is, indeed, good, Elena. I am blessed to have gotten to watch you on your first steps to literacy. I know that Ana will be part of you for the rest of your life, but I doubt she’ll ever give you a gift as great as the one she has been giving you the last six months. I hope you’ll remember that as a dark curtain fell across the entire world and everybody had to stay home, your grandmother Lisa/Ana took you under her wing and all but single-handedly taught you to read.

With abiding love, Aby.

[1] When your parents asked us what “grandparent” names we wanted, Lisa immediately chose “Nana.” I was kind of lost until your Uncle John suggested “Abuelito“. So people referred to us as “Nana” and “Abuelito” around you. Of course, as you began to speak, you couldn’t quite say those names. “Nana” came out “Ana” (the first “A” as in “Father”, likely because of your dad and nanny speaking Spanish to you). And “Abuelito” became “Aby” (my spelling, pronounced “Abby”). Grandparents quickly realize that the child truly picks the name, and we’ve been “Ana” and “Aby” ever since. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

You and John in Baja, Mexico. April 2018. The seashell book went everywhere with you.
You reading on your first birthday. December 2015
Lisa, you, and me reading Little Fox in the Forest (no words!)
You and Ana reading, September 2017


To Elena, From Aby: Togetherness

[Originally posted in February of 2021]

Dear Elena,

It’s a month after your 6th birthday, and your life is speeding up faster than I can believe. Which is why I’m pausing today to write about this – I wonder if it won’t be gone before too much longer.

Ever since you were little, you’ve craved and sought close physical contact with “your people.” You hold hands, you burrow into laps, you sprawl across us as if to maximize body contact. I present as Exhibit A you and your Uncle John at Glacier National Park, in July of 2017.

John and Elena at Glacier Lake, July 2017

You were two and a half… Look at that lean-in. “This is my Uncle John, and he belongs to me.”

Or this one. This is the two of you last month watching a Hanukkah video. For those of us in your “pack,” it’s a sublime experience, made only more so by its purity. You are still at an age where you (mostly) go where your nose and heart lead you. You don’t cuddle or hug somebody because you think you’re supposed to – you do it because that’s what you want, right now, in that moment.

There was that time out at Wildcat Creek where you and I went on a hike/climb in the dry creek bed. We stopped to have our lunch, and picked out two appropriately flat rocks to sit on. You ate for a couple of minutes, and then said, “Can I sit on your lap?” Trick question? So you sat in my lap and we ate our sandwiches. Then I took this picture.

Lee and Elena at Wildcat Creek, November 2020

Of course, as you age, you’ll learn to follow the social rules that we all do – it’s a necessity of navigating modern society. But for now, when you clamber onto a lap, we know it’s because at that moment, that’s where you wanted to sit, period. And I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that it is quite a blessing to have one’s lap chosen as where you want to sit.

Which brings me to yesterday. We’ve made a bit of a routine of picking oranges from a neighbor’s tree and taking them to a local food pantry, where they’re gratefully received. Yesterday, we filled two grocery bags. With Lisa/Ana watching, I climbed into the tree on a ladder and tossed down oranges.

Elena in an orange tree, February 2021

You caught them (“¡Lista!”) and put them in the bag. Of course, you demanded to climb into the tree to pick one, so I spotted and you climbed up and got the last orange for the bag. Then we drove over, handed over the oranges, and went for our reward – a doughnut from the nearby shop.

Sitting in the chilly wind we munched on our doughnuts (“I want half of mine and half of yours.” “Cool.”). Then you silently crawled into my lap and leaned into my shoulder. Was it to warm up? Was it just to be close to one of your pack? Do I care? I was looking at this picture yesterday, and thought, “That’s a different little girl. Not the little girl I played with a year or even six months ago.

Oh, I shall miss that little girl awfully. But the one who has replaced her catches oranges thrown to her, does some arithmetic without her fingers, and sometimes says things that reflect an insight for which none of us would have credited her. I am proud and humbled to be her granddad and can’t wait to get to know her better and see where our adventures take us.

I close this with a moment from a couple of weeks ago. I was over at your house helping your dad build your exceptionally cool two-story fort. I was standing near the back deck when you came out of your parents’ room, and across the back deck. You purposefully walked to me, quietly said, “Aby,” and held up your arms in a way that every small child (and grown-up) knows means, “Pick me up.” So I did. You wrapped yourself to me and put your head on my shoulder. Maybe you were there for a full minute? At some point, my brain said, “You know, of course, that it won’t be long before her growth curve and your strength curve cross in opposite directions, and you won’t be able to do this.” Elena, were you thinking this too? I shushed my brain before it could break my heart. And marinated in that exquisite moment of togetherness.


To Elena, From Aby: Adventure

[This post was originally published in June of 2021]

Dear Elena,

When your parents began casting about for a baby to adopt, I fervently hoped they’d pick (or be given) a girl. I can’t even quite say why, but I just knew I wanted a granddaughter. 

Little did I know that not only would I get a granddaughter, but that that granddaughter would be the one and only E-Blast.

From the moment I got my hands on you, I wanted to take you cool and interesting places, and push boundaries. Some grandparents want to spoil their grandkids – that didn’t particularly interest me, but the idea of grabbing you and heading for the edge of the envelope – now that had appeal. Like, here’s us when you’re just 3-4 months old. Somehow I got permission to take you walkabout in Berkeley near your apartment (2130 Ashby Ave #5, if you’re keeping track). I wanted to cover your head for cold protection, but couldn’t find a hat for you. So I threw your mom’s extremely cute knitted cap on you and off we went to find coffee at the nearby deli (yes, I got multiple comments about how cute you looked).

Lee & Elena on their first adventure – this time to a deli in Berkeley

You couldn’t know it, but that was the beginning of our adventures together.

It became clear from the start that you were not a Barbie and Princess little girl. You were jeans and t-shirts from the jump, and the jeans instantly got holes in the knees. And there was nothing you weren’t up for. 

There was that weekend when you were two and a half that Lisa and I “kidnapped” you to Monterey (with your parents’ permission of course) for the first time. We took you down to the beach, and you just lost it – you ran around the beach, you flirted with the surf zone. You were transfixed by the whole thing. This is you digging the whole Breakwater scene. We even got video of it.

Elena’s first trip to Breakwater in Monterey

Shortly after this picture and video were taken, you completely misjudged the surf zone. You did a face plant in six inches of very cold Monterey water. I was right there and scooped you up. You looked a bit nonplussed, a little shocked, but not upset. Just “What was that all about?” We took you back to our blanket, stripped your clothes off you, and wrapped you up in a blanket between us. All three of us took a glorious 30-minute nap. Then we put dry clothes on you and went back to exploring the beach.

Once you learned to say “Monterey,” it was all over. “When are we going to Monterey?” became your mantra. As you’ve grown, you’ve become more independent and bold about exploring the beaches of Monterey, but your fascination with the place, and its critters, has never wavered.

This is you, in May of 2021 in Pacific Grove, communing with a hermit crab. You were taken with them from the start, and are still intrigued.

Elena communes with hermit crab in Pacific Grove, CA. May, 2021

Once we moved into our townhouse in San Leandro, our community, and its warren of “secret passages” became a wonderland of adventure an intrigue for you. We even recreated a Wild Kratts episode, documented here.

As you watch the video, note a couple of things: (1) when you fall, you briefly come over for comforting, but then you’re back out on the trail; and (2) at some point we come out of a pathway and you’re not sure where you are. “Which way is the house?” “It’s that way.” You immediately head in the opposite direction.

Let’s talk about your bike. From the moment you got your bike, you immediately sensed it as a means to freedom. Sadly, I don’t have the video any more, but your dad got a short video of you riding the bike (training wheels and all) down a side street in Berkeley, within days of you getting it at REI. You’re rolling down the sidewalk, and as you head into the distance, we hear a clear, “Yee-ha!” 

February 15, 2020, just as the covid curtain was coming down, Lisa, your uncle John, and I took you over to Washington Elementary School (yes, where you’d attend school the next year). You had suggested that maybe you were ready to lose the training wheels. So I got out a wrench, took them off, and we walked you and your bike over to the school. We put you in the grass first for when you fell over. You got on the bike, pedaled 10 feet, and fell over. Then you got on the bike, pedaled 25 feet, and came to a standing stop. We knew that it would be easier for you to pedal on the hard surface, so we took you over there, and gave you a push-off. That was all she wrote.

Elena’s first day without training wheels, February 2020

These days, we routinely go on long bike rides together, sometimes with a doughnut as ostensible purpose of the journey, sometimes just for the joy of being out on the bikes. One of your favorite rides is between your house and our house – about a mile and a half. It goes right through downtown San Leandro, which can be pretty harrowing, even though we’re still at the stage of riding down the sidewalk. We recently did such a ride, and Lisa asked me how it was, “For Elena? Great – piece of cake, lotta fun. For me? Constant hyper-vigilance for 20 minutes.” So be it. It’s a small price to pay for being out on the adventure trail with you. 

P.S. on 9/3/21… I just had to add two things. First: a few weeks ago, we were out on one of our rambles through the secret passages of our townhouse community. You were in full spy mode for whatever reason. You turned to me and held up your hands – “Aby, I have to teach you the hand sniggles.” Then your eyes twinkled, a look I’ve seen before. The look said, “That’s not quite right is it?” It took me a moment, but then my heart melted with joy. “Oh – signals. Hand signals.” “Yeah, signals!” Then you taught me the secret hand signals. But oh, the world would be a very much better place if they really were “hand sniggles.”

And I promised two Things. Here you are:

Thing 1 and Thing 2


To Elena, From Aby: The Vaccination Unicorn

Dear Elena,

I don’t know when you’ll first read this, so I don’t know how how much Covid-19 will figure into your consciousness. But as I write this, Covid continues to be ever-present in our minds. Particularly in the Bay Area, everybody is wearing masks, we’re socially distancing, and right about now (November of 2021) we’re all getting our vaccination boosters.

More importantly, kids from 5-11 years old just started getting their first vaccinations. And you got your pfirst Pfizer vaccine just a week ago. You hate shots (don’t we all?), but you were so brave about it, because you understood how important it is. Completely coincidentally, you ran into your friends Dani and Ella at Kaiser, were you were all getting your vaccinations. I have never seen three such courageous girls in all my life.

The next day, you came to our house, then you and Ana went to your swimming lesson. When you got back, there was something unexpected in the living room:

A three-foot unicorn, floating up at the ceiling. Near it, battery-powered tea candles were glowing. New age music was playing on the stereo. The “Angel of the Sea,” which has been in our house for over 20 years, was sitting near the base of the unicorn, with a tea candle in her lap. I came in from the back yard, and you said, “Um, Aby – what happened here?”

“You know, sweetie – I’m not sure. I was out back grilling the chicken, and when I came back in, it looked like this.”

You looked at me, looked back at the unicorn. Lisa was still in the garage.

“Ana! There’s something in here you need to see!”

Lisa walked in, and was appropriately shocked. “Whoa, what’s this? And what’s that at the unicorn’s base?”

You looked and saw that the unicorn was tethered down by a purple box, which you’d later discover was full of Halloween-sized candy. There was a scroll stuck in a loop in the ribbon. It was stained and wrinkled with age. You opened it and tried to read it.

“Too many words – Aby, you read it to me.”

We got on the sofa, and I carefully unrolled the scroll. Then in my most measured, dramatic voice, I read…

You listened in silence, motionless. Then you looked back up at the unicorn. You were quiet for a while after that, and we let you just process the whole thing.

Elena, you will turn seven on Christmas Day, and fantasy thinking is already abandoning you. I’m pretty sure you don’t believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Faerie, but you cling to them a little because, honestly, the world is a much better place with a Tooth Faerie, isn’t it? Or maybe you pretend to believe in it just to soothe the grown-ups around you.

But you seemed to treat the Vaccination Unicorn as a bit special. When your mom showed up to pick you up, you immediately dragged her in to see the unicorn, and showed her the scroll. Mary, bless her, was every bit as awed by it as you were.

Then it was time for you to leave with her, and the miracle of November 2021 took place. Six months, a year ago, your first words would have been to ask if you could take the unicorn balloon home. But as you and Mary were leaving, I asked if you didn’t want to take it.

You paused, obviously conflicted. But your sense of mission, which burns bright in you, won the day.

“No… the unicorn needs to go visit some other kid.”

With a brief look back, you went out the door with your mom.