Categories
Diving

Diving Puako 120

If you’re a diver and find yourself on the Big Island of Hawai’i (which is probably not a coincidence) you owe it to yourself to do some shore diving. There is obviously plenty of great boat diving, and I can highly recommend Jack’s Diving Locker for that. But there’s something special about finding your own way to an awesome dive site. You get the experience all to yourself and your buddy(ies). If you want to be lazy about getting in the water, do so. Or if you’re a speed demon, you’re in the water before the boat divers have made it out of the harbor.

And I promise you that the shore diving is every bit as good as most of the boat dives you’ll do. Yeah, you gotta walk/crawl over lava. But for my money, it’s well worth it. Let me tell you about Puako 120. Puako is a little town 40 miles north of Kailua-Kona, immediately north of the Mauna Lani resort. It’s got a road, shockingly called “Puako Road,” that runs from Highway 19 down to the beach. All along it are glorious beach dives. This one is about “120” – you park at the utility pole labeled “120.”

If only all dive sites were so well labeled.

One great thing about Jack’s Diving Locker: they give out maps of the awesome shore dives. Here’s the Puako map:

Half a dozen great dive sites along one road.

Lisa and I left the Hale Kona Kai condo before 7:00am and were parked around 7:45.

First thing about diving Puako: be sure to mark your exit point. When you’re out in the ocean, everything looks the same. We hung a big orange/white striped beach towel off a tree on the shore.

The entry at Puako is the only bit of drama in the entire experience. There is slippery lava that you have to walk/craw over to reach the sandy bottom or deep enough that you can swim. I highly recommend going at high tide so you get deeper quicker.

The other recommendation: wear heavy booties, both for lava and urchin protection, meaning strapped, rather than full-foot, fins. Carry your fins in, and walk holding hands (three points of support) over the lava. I’m making it sound worse than it is – don’t let me put you off. Just be properly prepared, plan and time your entry right, and Bob’s your uncle.

There are mooring buoys all over the area. We took aim at the “middle” one, a heading of 15° off the beach. If you’re an old beach diver like Lisa and I are, the swim isn’t that daunting. And on a pretty Sunday morning in August, it’s downright enjoyable. Roll on your back (saves air for the underwater bit), kick slow and take your time.

We got almost to the buoy, when I looked down and saw a drop-off to about 40′ directly below us. “Look what I found.” I took a compass reading on our towel – sure enough, 195° – math is cool.

We found a sand bottom in 20′ at the edge of the drop-off, and went down there to adjust straps, clear masks, etc. Then we tumbled over and went down toward the sand. There is a gentle slope down to maybe 100′ – we hung around 50-60′. “Left or right?” I asked Lisa. Shrug. Shore dives are so fun. I picked left (westward) and we started cruising along the slope, enjoying the finger coral. Less than five minutes after we descended, this guy swam past us.

I didn’t take this picture, but it looked just like this.

I turned to see if Lisa was watching – her eyes were smiling ear to ear, so yeah. He came back 3-4 times. Lisa later said she saw him head up into the shallows. But it was fun to have him around for a little while.

Here’s the thing about drop-offs – I’m always turning to look out that way, because something amazing can swim past. Unlike the nature specials and Shark Week, the critters don’t have a swelling soundtrack to announce their arrival. I’ve always wondered how many astonishing sights I’ve missed because I was concentrating on something on the shoreward side. This wasn’t astonishing, but it was definitely way cool:

Whitetip reef shark. T. obesus

She was swimming parallel to us along the sand bottom, 40′ below us. If she was aware of us, she didn’t indicate it – she just passed us at a leisurely pace and disappeared into the gloom.

I should note that there were a bazillion reef fish of every sort. The outer slope reefs had clouds of anthias covering them. The big critters were fun, for sure. But even without them, the usual reef suspects made the dive delightful.

We continued on until we came to a weird topographic feature. As I mentioned above, there was a sand bottom at about 40′ below us to the right. But suddenly that sand bottom dropped off into the abyss in the direction we were going. And the slope that we were paralleling also dropped down into that same deep blue. It was beautiful. And freaky. We had to stop for a couple of minutes and just dig that particular junction.

Then it seemed like time to head back to slightly shallower water, so we headed up the slope. By sheer accident we ran smack into the mooring buoy one west of the one where we’d descended. I looked up and discovered that there was a boat attached to it, which explained the prop sounds we’d heard earlier in the dive.

My recollection of previous dives at Puako (a decade prior) was amazing topography, with canyons, arches, and towers of coral. I’d been missing that during the first part of the dive, and thought maybe I’d misremembered.

We just had to get to the right place. As we came up into 30-40′ of water near the second buoy, the canyons and arches appeared. I took a scientific wild-ass guess on the direction back toward our original buoy and we headed that way.

But we were careful to zig in and out toward shore to get the full joy of the terrain. Towers of coral. Archways that you could swim through, were they not full of big fish that you’d disturb. Dead-end canyons that looked like something out of a bizarre underwater cowboy western.

It was in one of those canyons that I had a memory of our friend Celeste Fowler. Man. We lost Celeste to cancer in 2004, and here 18 years on, it still stings. She was the most amazing diver, and just a magical spirit. Somehow I’d had the privilege of doing a dive with her at Puako – just the two of us. We were in one of those canyons, and Celeste was scanning her light under a ledge, when she waved me over. There was a whitetip shark sleeping on the sand under the ledge. We spent a few minutes enjoying that treat, then turned to head out. The canyon opened up in front of us, leading toward the drop-off – the view was stunning.

Celeste reached out and we held hands for a little while as we swam down the canyon. I hope that memory stays with me forever. Dives at Puako will help me keep it.

After meandering back in the general direction of home, Lisa and I thought it was time to think about finding the actual exit point. We found a sand patch, and I indicated that I was going to go up, get a proper compass reading, and come back down. But looking up, I saw a green sea turtle swimming over. It was surrounded by a dozen small jacks that were using its shell as a parasite cleaning station. One by one, the fish swam up to the turtle and wiped their sides against its shell, presumably to wipe parasites off themselves. Whether this has any benefit for the turtle, who knows?

They weren’t helping the turtle. Just scratching their own backs.

After that show was over, I went on up to the surface to get a compass reading. Miraculously, we were close to smack on the path that we’d taken out at the beginning of the dive (I’m just not that good at navigation) – home was at 200°.

We stayed underwater as far as possible because (a) it’s more fun, (b) you see more, and (c) it’s easier kicking underwater. Ultimately, we were at about 6′, so I gave up and ascended, much to Lisa’s annoyance.

We kicked on in, made our way across the lava, fins in hand, and got back to the shore. 65 minutes underwater, every one awesome.

Standing at the car, Lisa said, “That was great. Now let’s get lunch at Harbor House, then drive down to Two Step, and go snorkeling.” Gotta get full value for your last day in Kona.

Random shore diving note

Over the years, I’ve tended to weight myself more heavily than the textbooks suggest. Even the textbooks have gotten better about adding weight since my early training days in the 1980’s, because it’s important to be able to comfortably stay at your 15-20′ safety stop, even with an aluminum 80 cu. ft. tank that has added 3-5 lb. of buoyancy since it was full. But what the textbooks don’t talk about is the convenience and safety of being able to stay submerged at 15′, or 10′, or even 5′ on your return from a shore dive.

Experiment with a couple of extra pounds. I don’t think you’ll notice the difference at depth, but you’ll be glad that you’re able to still enjoy the dive as you swim back at a depth of 10′ toward the shore at Puako.

Categories
Music

Best. Concert. Ever.

I am a live music junkie, and I’ve been to my share of shows.

I’ve seen Chanticleer sing Renaissance polyphony by candlelight. I’ve seen the National Symphony Orchestra in full swing with Mstislav Rostropovich at the helm. I’ve seen Stephen Stills and Neil Young prowl around a stage, glaring, daring each other to produce a better solo during For What It’s Worth. I saw Chicago, at their height in the early 70’s, horns and Robert Lamm’s B3 raging. I sat in the rain while Tony Rice and Bela Fleck traded licks at Merlefest. I was the old white guy in the middle of the auditorium in Berkeley, losing my mind as George Clinton and Parliament brought The Funk. I sat in the 4th row and watched Yo-Yo Ma play trios with old college friends. Linda Ronstadt bouncing across the stage at Shoreline. Broadway performances of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Godspell. I saw Ladysmith Black Mombazo sing and dance with Joseph Shabalala directing the entire affair. I was down front to watch the original Seldom Scene perform Wait a Minute. I stood at the stage on the Isle of Man, as Roger Daltry performed the entirety of Tommy. Lyle Lovett and his large (it’s not big) band. Lisa and I stood in a special reserved seating area in Hyde Park and watched Bruce Springsteen sing Twist and Shout with Paul McCartney. I saw Live From Here at the Ryman Theater. Elton John playing solo for a small-ish crowd on the Isle of Man. The Tallis Scholars performing Palestrina near the Severn River. Bruce Hornsby. I’m With Her. Hot Tuna.

And yes, I have seen Doc Watson sing Columbus Stockade Blues.

I know I’ve left some important ones out, but even recalling and typing that list gives me shivers. So I don’t write that title lightly. But there we were on Friday, August 5th, 2022, when the American Acoustic Tour came to Mountain Winery in Saratoga, CA. The line-up was the Punch Brothers, Watchhouse (formerly known as Mandolin Orange), and Sarah Jarosz – maybe that’s enough for you.

It was certainly enough for me and Lisa to grab tickets, toward the front, as soon as we saw it was coming through. Mountain Winery is an extraordinary venue – outdoor, yet intimate. Artists love it, audiences love it, and it brings out the best in both.

But neither my love for the artists on the line-up nor the venue properly prepared us for what was in store.

It began, in the dawn of twilight, with the entire ensemble performing the bluegrass standard Little Birdie. First a cappella, then raging bluegrass, then a cappella again. We cheered, everybody waved and left, except Sarah Jarosz. I’m not doing any band bios here – their individual accomplishments (including her Grammys) don’t tell the story.

She performed a set of some of her hits, including a recent cover of U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. She said, “You know the words – go ahead and sing along.”

Which is a good place to tell you about the audience. Audiences for these artists come for the music. They are not there to party, and they make themselves part of the show only when it’s appropriate.

Sarah said to sing along, so we did. We got to the last time around and Sarah stopped singing, just strummed along on her octave mandolin, a beatific smile on her face. She was accompanying the crowd, and everybody was thrilled with that arrangement.

Then Chris Thile came back out, and said, “What about this woman?” We cheered.

And at this point we need to talk about Chris Thile, his genius, and his ego. Yes, he has a big ego, and he likes to be in the limelight. But we humans are not a menu from which you can take what you like and ignore what you don’t. His ego is inseparable from his once-in-a-generation genius. And his ability and willingness to have what the business world calls BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals.

Anybody can put together a tour of great musical acts. But it takes, well, it takes a genius to say, “What if we move people on and off the stage for three hours? We create every possible permutation of the amazing musicians we have, performing each others’ songs, and sometimes, songs that are ‘foreign’ to all of us.”

Exhibit A: Sarah Jarosz has finished her set. Thile is out there. They invite out Watchhouse’s cello player, Nate Smith. Perform a Punch, Jarosz, or Watchhouse tune? Nah, let’s go to the classical section of the record store:

And with that, the show flowed on. Watchhouse, occasionally augmented by Sarah or Chris.

I need to mention that as Watchhouse performed The Wolves, with its chorus line, “But I’ll go out howling at the moon tonight…,” a beautiful half-moon shone down from a clear sky onto the Mountain Winery. I’m sure I wasn’t in the only person in the audience with a lump in my throat. If you’ve never understood what The Wolves is about, neither did I, until I read this. Hint: it’s not a feel-good song.

Then Punch Brothers, weaving their usual acoustic magic, with the audience singing along to My Oh My.

Then the impossible happened… Thile and fiddle player Gabe Witcher began making weird chopping, cutting sounds with their instruments, standing face to face, like Stills and Young, daring the other to do something weirder. As this scene played, Noam Pikelny started the magical drone on his banjo. Sarah walked out, and I realized they were reprising the Live From Here performance of Massive Attack’s Teardrop. As did many in the audience, and we promptly lost our minds.

My wife calls this music, “The chamber music of our time.” Some people will try to squeeze “grass” into the name somewhere. Sure, these musicians can (and do) fire up a bluegrass standard now and again. The instrumentation is there, and they all grew up on bluegrass, so when they play bluegrass and fiddle tunes, it’s as good as you’ll ever hear it.

But Itzhak Perlman playing klezmer music does not make klezmer music western classical music. It makes Itzhak Perlman a genre-hopper, and a genius one at that.

“American Acoustic” might be a great name for the genre, as well as the title of the tour.

One of the most glorious portions of the show was when all 11 musicians were on the stage. At times, there were 4-5 instruments being played arco (bowed), with the rest plucked. I will bet a lot of money that Gabe Witcher, a high-demand composer and arranger in L.A., was responsible for the string arrangements.

There was one song, sadly, I can’t remember which one, that faded to a string quartet of Gabe and Emily Frantz of Watchhouse on fiddle, Nate Smith on cello, and Paul Kowert on bass, all arco. As the plucked instruments subsided, those players stood in a group and watched as the quartet brought the piece to a beautiful, mildly dissonant, heart-rending ending.

Anyway, as anticipated, the show ended with everybody on stage. [Except for Watchhouse’s guitar player, Josh Oliver, and bass player, Clint Mullican.] It started with Chris, Emily, Andrew, and Sarah singing, “Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey I cry…” We all knew where that was going. But what if the Punch classic Rye Whiskey was played not by five great musicians, but nine great musicians? Recall when you saw Punch Brothers playing this live (you have, haven’t you?). Now visualize 2x the horsepower, with the same verve and joie de musique

Let me put this way: the shadows you see on the back wall behind the stage – that’s how big those musicians really are.

Oh, and Emily Frantz sang Rye Whiskey like Thile had written the song for her. Her presence on stage is, in a word, overwhelming. For this tune, she abandoned the honey of her Tarheel voice and went full moonshine county. Pass that bottle over here.

This will wrap your troubles up in a bright blue box and tie a bow around it.

Sorry, I gotta glance back at that. Watch at 2:50. You have Paul and Nate doing a bass/cello arco duet of the melody, while Andrew stands between them, best seat in the house, just grooving. At 3:08, Gabe and Emily land on it with both feet and we’ve got four masters playing the melody, arco, across three different octaves. Critter, who usually smiles, is grinning from ear to ear. He’s heard and played this tune a hundred times, but man, never quite like this.

The encore, for which I was delighted to see Clint and Josh return, was not a song, but an entire set, and rather than me try to describe it, I’ll pass you over to YouTube.

The second song is Can’t Be Sure by the Sundays. It’s a lovely tune, by an indy band with a passionate cult following. Kinda like… nevermind. I had never heard the tune, so went and listened to the original. The American Acoustic cover was accurate, loving, and brought their own vibe to it. Not surprisingly, Sarah crushed it.

The third encore piece was the Watchhouse classic Wildfire. And here, I want to address those of you who say that Thile’s ego gets in the way. This is a Watchhouse song, Andrew is singing lead, and Chris knows exactly where his place is – to sing “Mmmmm” in the back-up. Then watch at 0:40. Guitarist Josh Oliver is kind of hanging back – Chris steps back and waves him up to the mic. It’s Josh’s band – he gets near the mic. Chris Thile is devoted to the music, and when that means he steps back, he does.

The very last tune looped back around to bluegrass. In this case, classic bluegrass gospel. It was if they were saying, “We know we’ve taken you on a light-speed tour to our own corner of the galaxy. We’ll bring you back home to safe and familiar ground.”

And as they closed the show, Thile held out his hands and emphasized the line, “…where all is peace and joy and love…” It was, without doubt, a final prayer and benediction.

Categories
Family

Okay Elena, you promised.

Dear Elena,

It was a perfectly normal Elena-Aby morning together today – August 4, 2022. I picked you up at 11:00 – you and Cherry and Cosmo all came blasting to the door. Your mom was taking a short break from work to get us out the door, which we did quite quickly, once you’d found two shoes that were different colors.

We went to the library, and honestly, I expected you to fuss a bit, because I’d mentioned the library yesterday, but you weren’t the least interested. This time, I said, “We’re going to the library.”

“Oh, cool.”

We got to the library, parked the car, and walked in. We wandered around the young readers’ section. You wanted books about Minecraft, Sonic, and Star Wars. Which is kind of okay. But I wanted you to have something that took you out of the grasp of American consumerism. Somehow you stumbled across the Jack and Annie Magic Treehouse collection, which you know well. You found one whose front cover appealed to you (it was about Jack and Annie going to Venice, on a mission for Merlin). That sold me, we got checked out, and…

Wait, before we leave the library, I have to tell you about a cool thing you did. As we were walking toward the section where your books were, a woman was approaching us, carrying a wee one, and a bunch of books. I’m not sure what happened, but suddenly there was a small crash, all her books were on the floor, and the little guy was wailing because the noise scared him.

Without hesitation, you darted forward, recovered the books from the floor, and handed them to the mom, who had settled down her little one. I was so incredibly proud of you.

Back at the parking lot

I’d promised you some kind of treat, and you wanted… it took you a second to remember, but frozen yogurt. Conveniently enough, there’s a frozen yogurt shop a five-minute walk from the library.

“We’re just leaving the car in the shade,” said I, and we happily walked over to the Safeway shopping center. When we got ready to cross E. 14th Street, I held out my hand, you took it without notice, and we crossed.

Sadly, the fro-yo shop was closed for some reason.

“We need a Plan B,” you said, a child of the Wild Kratts, who are always needing a Plan B.

“Let’s get boba.”

I knew that the 85 Bakery, across the parking lot, had boba, so we headed over that way.

“If they don’t have boba, Plan C will be a doughnut,” you said. I like a kid who has a Plan C ready, in case Plan B fails.

Plan B and the walk to the bakery

As we walked from the fro-yo place to the bakery, I took your hand – the parking lot of that shopping center is chaotic, and I just didn’t trust all the drivers. But I wanted to make it clear that I trusted you…

“Elena, I want you to understand that if you had to walk from that fro-yo place by yourself to the bakery, I would 100% trust you to do it safely on your own. It just gives me a little extra confidence since I’m there, and this parking lot is nuts.

“But just so we’re clear, if you had to do that walk, what would you be watching for at each street?”

“Wildebeests.”

This is exactly the right answer. You see, when I first let you run from the mailbox at our townhouse complex to our house, I wanted to be sure you’d be safe. So I’d say, “When you run from the mailbox to the house, you have to watch out for wildebeests and cars!”

After a while, I’d quiz you before I let you go.

“What are you watching out for?”

“Cars. And wildebeests.”

“Good. Off you go.”

We got to the sidewalk but I didn’t let go of your hand. Just because it felt so awesome to hold it.”

“You know Elena, you’re totally safe, even if I don’t hold your hand. But sometimes I hold it, just because it makes me so happy to hold your hand. See, when you’re 15, you’re not going to want to hold my hand, and that will make me a little sad.”

Without hesitation…

“I’ll still hold your hand when I’m 15.”

“Really? You will?”

In your most “Don’t be silly, Aby” voice: “Of course.”

Plan C

The bakery had boba, but after you tasted it, you decided it wasn’t what you wanted. So we went to Plan C – a doughnut from Safeway. We walked down the sidewalk to Safeway, holding hands for no reason of safety whatsoever.

“How long is it until I’m 15?”

“Eight years.”

[Pause] “That’s really not that far away.”

[Pause] “No, it’s going to be here before either of us knows it.”

We got two doughnuts – one for your and one for Great-Gran. You did the whole self-checkout thing, and we walked back over to the library, where we found two awesome stone benches under a tree.

“This one’s yours, this one’s mine.”

You started in on your blue-icing doughnut (“This is the best doughnut ever!”) while I began reading about Jack and Annie’s adventure to Vienna. I wasn’t more than a few pages in, when you got up, came over, and sat on my bench. You leaned into me, and took in the story. Which obviously made me blissful.

Too soon, it was time to take you to Star Wars – Lego camp. We used a piece of doughnut bag as a bookmark (can’t fold pages on a library book!) and got in the car.

15 minutes later we walked into the community center where your Star Wars Lego camp is.

“Do you wanna sign you in, or do you want me to sign you in?”

“You sign me in, but use my initials.”

“Okay.”

30 seconds after we’d walked in, your backpack was on the shelf, and you were bent over Star Wars Lego figures with other kids. Chiara’s mom was picking you up, and you were good to go. I said good-bye and thanked you for a great morning. You waved without looking up – you are a child of the moment, and at that point, you were in a Galaxy Far Far Away.

You, one minute after we walked in the door of your Star Wars Lego camp

But me, I rushed home to write this. Cause you promised, Elena. You promised me that you’ll hold my hand when you’re 15. And that’s as good a reason as I can think of to look forward to the year 2030.

Love, Aby

Categories
Music

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Categories
Music

One more time!

My cousins, Roald and Ellie Kirby, who live in Troutdale, Virginia, invited me to an old-time jam on the last day of my residency in the North Carolina mountains. It was at the homestead of a friend of theirs in Elk Creek, Virginia.

“Do you know Elk Creek?”
“No, but play it one time around and I’ll fake it.”

Even better, their friend, Jerry, lives at the very end of Possum Run Lane.

“Do you know Possum Run Lane?”
“Sure do. Same chord pattern as Old Joe Clark, right?”

I’d show you what it looked like on the drive up, but Google street view stops when you leave VA-21 out of Independence. Me and the Prius made it down the dirt road, dirtier driveway, and cattle barrier with no problems. I think Roald and Ellie were relieved, and perhaps a little surprised, to see that I’d made it there.

There was a pond – Roald, who is an avid fisherman, had just landed a bluegill on a popper. And there was a beautiful 20′ long custom-made picnic table, with more food than the dozen of us could possibly consume. I regret that I didn’t get a picture of it.

They told me that, back in the old days, there’d be a hundred pickers standing around the picnic area, and you couldn’t see the top of the picnic table for the dishes covering it. There’s times in my life when I feel that I was late getting to a party – this was certainly one of them.

However, I did get a picture of my dessert, which was blueberries from Roald’s blueberry patch, and a giant hunk of cherry pie, which Ellie had made from the fruit of their cherry tree.

There is zero chance I’ver ever eaten a better cherry pie. Which is a strong statement.

Eventually, the glorious sound of instruments tuning wafted across the pond.

I may have still been eating cherry pie when this picture was taken.

This jam was “In A,” meaning that all the tunes have to be in the key of A. Apparently they have a different key each week, so there’s not the hassle of capo adjustment and retuning. Fortunately, the tunes I wanted to play/hear were in A, so I was content. But no Forked Deer for me this time (it’s in D).

Many jams have a fairly rigorous protocol of song selection passing around the circle – this is one of ’em. It’s bad form to suggest a tune until it’s your turn, but fortunately I really enjoyed the picks that other people made.

At some point, I noted that when I picked with the Irish/Celtic musicians in the Isle of Man, they always stopped and applauded and/or cheered after every tune. I said that I missed that about bluegrass jams in the U.S. For no reason that I understand, the protocol there is that the song ends, then everybody looks down at their instrument and tunes. There’s never any acknowledgment of the great music that just happened.

“Well, sometimes Rita will say, ‘Woo-hoo!’ You can do that if you wish. “
“Excellent – I’ll do that.”
“Okay, but don’t overdo it.”

I just followed Rita’s lead, and whenever she’d say “Whoo-hoo” after a tune, I did too. All things in moderation.

One woman told me that it was nice having me there, because it reminded her of the old days, when there’d be dozens of musicians standing around eating chili and deviled eggs, and she’d know only 1/3 of them. I told her I was proud to stand in for a couple of dozen hungry pickers.

I could go on, but there’s not that much more to say. The music broke out, and when that happens, you don’t need commentary.

I was the one who asked for Road to Malvern. Most of the people weren’t sure they knew it. But a couple of people said they thought they had it under their fingers. The rest of the crowd said, “Great – y’all start and we’ll catch up.” That’s the hallmark of a great jam – a willingness to plow forward, even when not everybody is sure they know the tune.

I thought it was wonderful.

I had to leave early – I was driving down the mountain to catch a plane out of Charlotte the next morning. It was sad to lose the altitude I’d been living in for the prior 18 days. But man, there was absolutely no better way to spend that last day in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

They were just getting into Bill Cheathem when I left – it sounded great coming over the pond as I walked to my car. I hope Jerry and them will invite me back for next year. I could use another piece of Ellie’s cherry pie and some tunes beside the pond.


P.S. The “One More Time” in the title is a reference to the practice in old-time jams to call out, “One more time!” when, well, it’s the last time through the tune. Because otherwise, there’s nothing to stop it from going all night.

Categories
Fishing

A Day on Helton Creek

There will be a time and place to give the origin story of me fishing Helton Creek, but this isn’t it. This is simply a time to chronicle a day I was out there.

It is the last few days of my 2.5 week residency here in Ashe County, NC. I’d scheduled this to be a day of fishing – nothing else on the calendar. Furthermore, I wasn’t going far afield to do it. First, I didn’t want to drive any significant distance. But just as importantly, I wanted to be in familiar waters. If I caught a trout, that was great, amazing. If I didn’t, to paraphrase John Starling, I’d be wading through my creek of memories.

I got in touch with Brian Stewart, who had taken me fishing over toward Chilhowie on Thursday. Is there any good fishing on Helton? He started talking about Mount Rogers School, and the memories flooded back. Decades ago, Dean C. Jones and I would park his old Ford Bronco right there and fish down to the bridge where Route 751 heads down into North Carolina, then up to the Lutheran church.

We’d also walk up 751 the other way. His brother-in-law had a homestead behind the school. The creek ran right between the two, and got no fishing pressure because it was on private land. I mean, except the odd brother-in-law and his much younger cousin.

Dean C., man. There’s a whole story there. But suffice to say that a thread of my best life runs through the times he and I were chasing trout around Grayson and Smyth counties in Virginia, and Ashe County in North Carolina.

The man who taught me to fly fish. And that fishin’ was great even when catchin’ wasn’t

This morning at 11:00, I parked here. I put a #14 Adams on my fly rod and climbed in the creek…

I was perfectly prepared to get skunked – I was content. But it wasn’t ten minutes before there was a solid splash at my Adams and I was tied into a fish. He got off, but I knew they liked what I was offering.

Just a few minutes later, another splash and this time I got the 7″ wild rainbow trout to me. I dipped my hand into the water to wet it before I held him (it avoids damaging the protective slime on their skin), slipped the barbless hook out, and gently put him back in the water.

They all looked just like this one. Except the one that didn’t.

He looked just like that, but that’s not him. I’m not going to keep them out of the water longer than necessary.

That’s how I spent the next two hours. I’d float the Adams over a likely looking spot, and more often than not, a trout would appear out of nowhere and smack it. The fisherpeople reading this will understand me when I say it seems impossible. The water is clear, and you can see to the bottom. But you float the fly there because, well, there has to be a trout there. Even though you can see that there isn’t one.

But there is one, and it smacks your fly.

Relatively few of those strikes resulted in hooked fish, but a trout striking a dry fly on the surface is half the fun of fly fishing anyway.

I think the biggest one I landed was 9″. Oh, but I hooked a big one. It was in a gorgeous sun-dappled hole just above the bridge where 751 crosses over the creek. I knew there was probably a handful of fish in there, so wasn’t surprised when the Adams got smacked. But it wasn’t so much smacked as it was smashed. My rod doubled over. The fish dove, then came straight up, a foot out of the water. When it hit the water, the fly went the other way. Critter was probably 12″. Maybe a hair bigger.

“I fooled you – you outmaneuvered me. Fair enough,” I said.

After 90 minutes I stopped getting strikes. It was sunny but cool, and the stream is well covered by rhododendron and other foliage. I didn’t think it was the mid-afternoon doldrums. I took a look at my fly.

Note the torn up tail

This rarely happens to me, but the fly was literally worn out. It had been chewed on by too many trout.

I put on a fresh fly – it looked Adams-y to me. I’m sure my serious fly-fishing buddies would be able to tell me the difference. [1] Anyway, it started getting strikes again, so that must have been the problem.

One of the trout I caught looked a bit different as I pulled it in, and sure enough, it was a wild brown.

Also not the fish I caught, but neither of us could tell the difference.

After a while, I decided it was time to call it an afternoon. “After the next one I land.” That took 15 minutes.

As I looked around, I realized that I was likely on the edge of Gayle Price’s (Dean C’s brother-in-law) old homestead. I didn’t recognize it because in the days we fished there, Gail mowed right up to the creek bank. But I could see a big house being remodeled across the field from the creekside brush.

I climbed out – sure enough, it was Gayle’s old place. A middle-aged couple came out the front door. Obviously they’re remodeling/restoring the place themselves. The woman called out, “This is private property!” Which, fair enough.

So I walked across the mown portion of the field. Turned my hat backwards so they could see me, and introduced myself. Talked about Dean C. (“Oh, Dr. Charles Jones’s dad!”), and next thing you know, Bob and Sue Revels were telling me the stories of how they got the house, and one of Gayle’s dogs, to boot. They’re fine folks and were awfully gracious about some random guy climbing up out of their creek and wandering across their yard.

Eventually I let them get back to their flooring, and I walked back to the road and my car.

Yeah, I stopped at the bridge and tossed my fly in. Landed another rainbow, but the big one wasn’t having any of it.

Single best solo fishing day of my life – today, June 18th, 2022, right here on Helton Creek.

Look behind me. There’s old Dean C., just grinning

[1] I really hope there’s a dry fly called a Morticia Adams

Categories
Life As It Happens

Travel as training

Use it or Lose it

I think I first heard the expression “Use it or lose it” proximate to vacation accrual caps at a job. I remember that my dad had to take time off from his job at the Department of the Navy, or he would exceed the statutory 240 hours leave time cap.

As you age, you hear the phrase in a more important context. That which you want to have available to you in life, you must exercise. Want your heart to keep beating regularly? Push your heart rate to higher-than-normal levels so it stays in shape. If you want your muscles to continue working, you exercise them, remind them how to do their job.

And it’s no secret that mental activity prolongs mental acuity. Stop using your mind, and it will stop working.

We even have a phrase, “I’m rusty.” Just like a gate. If the gate doesn’t open and close occasionally, it rusts in one position.

Which brings me to travel. I love going places. It’s often the destination, but sometimes, as Stephen Stills put it, “It’s no matter, no distance – it’s the ride.” A few weeks ago, our granddaughter, Elena, asked if we could take her on another trip on the ferry across the bay to San Francisco. “Why do you want to go, sweetie?”

“Just to see somewhere different,” said a kid who has spent a full third of her life under the shadow of Covid.

I dig, Elena, I dig. I’m excited to get on a plane, or a train, or in the car, and go. To open the hotel curtains to a new vista, to land at a new airport, to taste cuisine that I’ve only gotten from expats. I’m pretty sure I get this from my mom, which is a bit of a sad story. She was born working poor in Charlotte, North Carolina at the beginning of the Depression. In most worlds, she would have never had the chance to travel at all. But thanks to a junior high school journalism teacher, she met my dad. They both got graduate educations, and went onto live a comfortable upper-middle class life that afforded plenty of opportunity and discretionary money for travel.

Thing is, my dad loved nothing more than to sleep in his own bed. Or a tent. So we did a fair amount of camping when I was a kid. We camped across the U.S. twice, and that in itself was extraordinary. But Mom, she would have loved the life of travel that I’ve known, and used to beg me to send her postcards so she could imagine (and look up on Google) the places I went. Hawaii and Alaska. India and Fiji. Australia and France and Russia. Puerto Rico and Costa Rica. The Netherlands, Italy (one place Mom did get to go, which she loved), England, and Mexico.

When I step outside a strange airport, my computer bag on my back, and a small suitcase pulled behind me, I feel alive.

Covid was not as hard on me as it was on many. I was already semi-retired when it hit, so I didn’t have the worries of doing a job remotely. I had the luxury to ask others to bring me groceries if I didn’t feel safe going in the grocery store. And I was fortunate to have my family around me, so I had a pod of loved ones to keep me sane.

But not traveling drove me nuts. After years of going when and where I wished, living overseas, and all those airports, waking up to the same horizon every day was tough.

So my trip to the Washington, D.C. area, and on to London and the north of England, was partially to see old friends, partially to “see another place,” and maybe, almost subconsciously, to exercise that muscle. To prevent rust from forming on my traveling shoes.

It started with Lisa, bless her heart, dropping me at the Coliseum BART station at 5:30am, on her way to Sacramento for her clinicals at UC Davis Medical Center. A person of my age and means doesn’t normally take BART from the East Bay to SFO, and definitely not catching the 5:40am train. No, they take a taxi, or somebody gives them a ride. If they’re tech-savvy, they grab a Lyft.

Where’s the challenge in that?

With my Clipper card loaded into G-pay, I tap my phone on the gate, board the train, and pull into a double seat with my suitcase and computer backpack. Change at Balboa Park and cruise into the International terminal at SFO. Money saved equals a nice dinner somewhere.

The plane is scheduled to leave at 8:30am, but it’s shortly after noon before we get away. If this sort of thing bothers you, then travel is not your bag. Drama-free flight across the country, though I am always blown away at the vistas you get of the United States from 35,000 feet.

Hello, Washington

We land at Dulles, I grab my suitcase and head to the area to catch the shuttle to the rental car center. Wait, no. I’ve leveled up on rental cars. I now use Turo, which is AirBnB for rental cars. So I message Razan, whom I’ve never met, and tell her that I’m headed out exit door #4. She replies that she’ll be there in ten minutes. She arrives, we shake hands, she looks at my driver’s license. I take pictures of the car, and ask her if she needs a ride somewhere. No, her husband is waiting in a car behind us. She wishes me a nice trip and I’m gone – total time elapsed, less than 5 minutes. Hasta la vista, Enterprise.

Bullet point plug for Turo:

  • It’s way faster than renting from the rental companies. Five minutes rather than 45-60 minutes. Multiplied by two for pick-up and drop-off.
  • It’s cheaper. These people are just trying to make a few bucks – not support a giant company’s staff and shareholders.
  • Your money is going to fellow humans, not a big company.

Drive over to Maryland, and get to my hotel in suburban Rockville. They want $20 per night to park. I don’t scoff at them out loud, because that would be rude. But the fact is that we are surrounded – surrounded, I tell you – by half-empty free parking lots for the retail and office establishments around us. I choose, instead, to park in the lot for the hotel’s restaurant (clearly labeled as for the restaurant only). You see, the restaurant was shuttered during the depths of the pandemic, so it’s Reserved Parking for a restaurant that doesn’t exist. Three nights at the hotel, that’s another $60 saved. Will the $60 make a difference in my life? Of course not, but part of the travel game is keeping score. I’m a cross-Bay Lyft, Enterprise-Turo savings, and three nights of hotel parking ahead, and it’s still my first day on the road. [1]

Three days spent in the D.C. area visiting friends and family. The big treat for me was fishing in Watts Branch, a couple of miles from the house where I grew up. I was driven over Watts Branch probably 3-4 times a day for most of my growing up years. As an avid fisherman, I always thought, “I wonder if there’s fish in there.” But it was a long hilly bike ride, and by the time I could drive, other priorities had taken over.

Now, I had a car and no higher priorities, so I drove out to Watts Branch and spent two hours not getting a single strike on a handful of different flies. The web says there’s fish in there, and I believe them. But what was important was that I fulfilled a childhood dream – to fish those waters nearly in my back yard.

There’s fish in there – I just didn’t catch ’em

Sunday evening was Lyle Lovett at the Birchmere with friend and poker buddy, Carrie. I missed live music more than I missed traveling, and I haven’t seen Lyle in far too long. “We missed you, Lyle!” a woman yelled from the crowd. “Ma’am, I reckon we missed you more than you missed us.”

Carrie and I had planned to play poker after the show, but it was 10:00pm by the time it got out, and we discovered that we were old. So we agreed to meet the next morning at the MGM National Harbor. We helped start a $1/3 game (my buy-in already secured), played for a couple of hours (both booking wins), then had brunch and caught up some more.

Then I was back to Dulles, dropped the car with Razan (two minutes total time together) and checked in for my overnight flight to London Heathrow.

Fishing a boyhood memory, then dinner, Lyle Lovett, and poker with a good friend, and get on a plane to cross the Pond. All in under 30 hours. This is how you work your travel muscles.

Goodnight, Washington

Transatlantic overnight flights are where we separate the “tourists” from the “road warriors.” The more of them you do, the more tricks you learn.

  • Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes. Be prepared to layer for both cold and warm.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • A hoodie with zippered pockets is invaluable. The hood allows you to keep the cold fan air off your head. The zippered pockets are where you reliably store phones and passports.
  • Conversely, putting a phone or passport in a seat-back pocket is a great way to destroy a trip.
  • Protein bars are your friend
  • Yes, I know you can choose from 50 different movies and 25 TV shows. Do not do this. Your job is to sleep if you possibly can. Whatever will help you to sleep (white noise, alcohol, medication), use it.
  • If your finance permit, paying for seat upgrades is often good value.

In my case, I’d stumbled onto a cheap fare that included business class travel eastbound from IAD-LHR. I must have reviewed that itinerary 15 times before I actually believed it.

Pro tip: the eastbound travel (U.S. East Coast to Europe) is five times harder and more grueling than the westbound leg. I’m sure it has something to do with flying overnight and time advancing. If you have to choose, upgrading the eastbound fare is far more important.

Another pro tip: if you’re sitting in business class, they’re going to offer you a fancy meal and expensive wine right after take-off. Say no thanks (beforehand) – put your eyeshades on, and go to sleep immediately. You don’t have that long to actually sleep so you need to make the most of it.

I’ve had the same eyeshade for longer than I can remember. It’s soft, comfortable, and produces pure darkness. I stretched the full-recline seat out (OMG, is this real life?) and said goodnight to the Atlantic Ocean.

Good morning, Heathrow

Landing in London at 6:00am is the poster child for testing travel muscles. If you’re in absolute top form, you might get 4-5 hours of sleep on the plane. Then you’re woken up when your body thinks it’s 10:00pm, and wants to settle down and do nothing. But instead, you’re marched off the plane half-asleep (why you never put a phone or passport in a seat back pocket). I think the walk to customs and immigration is on the order of half a mile.

T2 – the Queen’s Terminal. A lot nicer than baggage claim at other LHR terminals

Smooth sailing through customs, get my bag, and start walking toward the Heathrow Express. Another half mile away, and now I’m hauling my roller bag.

En route, I get a text from the Heathrow Express people. They warn me that there’s a transit strike, and the London Underground (aka “The Tube”) is pretty much non-operational. But they are running normally.

Jump on the Heathrow Express and it’s a quick 15 minutes to Paddington Station. Sure enough, signs outside the Paddington Tube station warn of “longer journey times.” Oh, the British are so very understated.

Traveler pro tip: before you leave, see if your mobile phone plan has an international option. If not, they’ll probably sell you a two-week package or similar at a reasonable price. Buy it. Lisa and I somehow stumbled into a T-Mobile plan (for old people) that is all you can eat phone, data, text, and hotspot for $90/month for two lines. And it includes 2G coverage in 40-odd countries. I cannot overstate the joy and relief of taking my phone out of airplane mode at Heathrow, waiting 30 seconds, and getting a text from T-Mobile that says, “Welcome to the UK,” with a bunch of information about data rate limits, and such.

Why did I just bring this up? Because when I see that the Tube isn’t running, I just fire up Google Maps. It’s 2.4 miles to my hotel near King’s Cross. And it’s hardly raining at all.

Visualize your trainer at the gym walking up and increasing the slope on your treadmill, just for giggles. This is what the Universe did for my travel training. Fortunately, I’d been doing my walking training too, and 2.4 miles didn’t seem like a big deal at all.

So I set a course on my phone for my hotel, and walk out of Paddington Station into a drizzly, grey London morning, feeling alive, alert, and grateful.

By Ed g2s - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=119352
The walk along Marylebone Road looked like this, only grey and drizzly.

Hello London

I spend the next two days bombing around London and seeing a couple of friends who live there. But mostly just enjoying the town, which has always been one of my favorites. I eat curry and scones because London, and Lebanese food in Edgware Road, because to miss that would be awful.

Mostly, it’s an opportunity to visit a city that I love, and I revel in the fact that I know my way around London. This isn’t because I’m cool, or important. It’s because I’m lucky. So wandering the streets of London, going significant distances without looking at Google Maps, is a way to experience gratitude. And to keep my travel muscles in shape.

Going North

I had a date with an old PokerStars buddy to go fly fishing with him near his home in Ilkley, in North Yorkshire. I’d never been to North Yorkshire, so this was an awesome opportunity to see an old friend and see somewhere different.

Everybody in England travels on the train, and, in small enough doses, it’s kinda fun. The train to Ilkley, via Leeds, leaves out of King’s Cross Station, [2] so me and my two bags rocked up there. There is something iconic about a London train station, and King’s Cross, being one of the biggest, doesn’t disappoint. Get my breakfast at Pret a Manger (doesn’t everybody get breakfast at Pret?) and am on my way northward.

The difference between London and the north of England is like that between New York City and the rural South of the U.S. In fact, the parallels run close in many ways. It’s nearly a different language, and a different way of life – a different world.

This is provably not a London hotel.
This, however, is provably a cheese shop. If you think this is funny, it is.

Colin and I caught zero fish, and had to get out of the River Nidd earlier than we wanted because, well, it’s like this… when you’ve gone to the trouble to drive to a river, get all your gear on, and wade in, it can be tempting to just stay there and fish. Even if conditions aren’t optimal. Now, if that means “not catching any fish,” don’t make me laugh – fishing can be great even if you’re not catching anything, and Colin and I both dig that.

However, there comes a time when you think, “This could end poorly.” Very specifically, when the water level is 18″ higher than normal, the river is really ripping around you, and you think, “If I fall at this point, the best case outcome is that I come up very wet and very cold. The worst case outcome, I don’t even want to think about.” That’s when wise fishermen get out of the water. Colin and I knew when to climb out of the River Nidd.

And yet, we had a blast. He drove me past the super-secret NSA installation (yes, I said “NSA”) in the middle of nowhere in North Yorkshire. Giant golf-ball antennas dotting the countryside, side by side with the cows and the sheep.

Travel is so cool.

Hello London, again

Another train journey, and back to London. This time I stayed hard on the shores of Leicester Square, not least because it put me close to London poker, and was an easy Tube shot to Paddington Station when I was going to fly out of Heathrow.

I spent my time wandering around, visiting old haunts…

If this means something to you, you’re a PokerStars O.G.

Looking for a place called Lee Ho Fuks – gonna get a big dish of beef chow mein

Somewhere in Covent Garden, I had an afternoon snack of a fresh baked scone, because London, and a coffee drink, which was their house-prepared hot chocolate from scratch, with two shots of house-roasted espresso poured in, because OMG. Warren Zevon can keep the beef chow mein.

Then I got the covid test that was required to get back into the U.S. That involved two two-mile round trips on foot to get to Boots in Oxford Street, but I didn’t begrudge a single step of it. What was it Samuel Johnson said – “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

I ended the day and trip with a ten-hour poker session, which I document in full here. Don’t read it unless you like long poker tales.

Final exam

A story that includes an all-night poker session should probably end there. But the Universe wasn’t done with shenanigans.

I boarded the United Airlines 787 at Heathrow, mentally and physically prepared for the ten-hour flight to SFO. I’d even found a cheap upgrade into Premium Economy, which seemed well worth it. Locked in an aisle seat and was ready to roll.

Get to my seat, 22D, and there’s a guy sitting in it. White male, 24 years old.

“Excuse me, I think this is my seat.”

“Oh, my bad, I’m on the wrong side of the [three-seat] row.”

He switches over, and now his buddy, white male, 24 years old, returns. And he is vibrating with discomfort and angst. Come to find out he’s in the center seat between us. He had poached another random seat in Premium Economy, but had been sent back to his official seat.

It turns out this fellow has claustrophobia. I knew this trip was going too well. He is sitting in the center seat, all but crawling out of his skin. And he’s going to be sitting next to me for the next 10-11 hours.

I’m sitting there, trying to figure out what my options are (the plane is jam packed), when Mindy, the flight attendant, approaches me, and beckons me out of my seat.

“This gentleman is extremely uncomfortable in a center seat.”

“So I gathered.”

“I am not asking you to do this, but would you consider swapping seats with him?”

I pause. I try to show grace where I can, but this is a big ask.

“Tell you what, see what else you can work out, and if you have no other options, yes, I’ll swap.”

She was extremely appreciative, and went back to furious texting on her phone. In the meantime, the guy next to me is vibrating with discomfort. It is clear that we’ll all be better off if I swap with him.

Ten minutes later, Mindy is back, and addresses Vibrating Guy.

“Sir, I have three seats together – 35 J, K, L for you, in economy, if you’d like those.”

“But, I paid 325 bucks for this upgrade.”

The road warriors among you will know what happened, and how quickly it happened.

Me: “Three-seat row in economy?”

Mindy [brightening visibly]: “Yes sir.”

“I’ll take it.”

“You won’t get a rebate on your upgrade, sir.”

“That’s not a problem.”

The road warriors here are laughing. Getting a three-seat row to yourself is 80% as good as being in a lay-flat seat in business/first. No, you don’t get the fancy china and warmed mixed nuts before dinner. But what you do get is space and privacy, which is really what you’re paying for up front. At least it’s what I’m paying for. Given a choice between one Premium Economy seat and three Economy seats, the latter is a snap no-brainer choice.

I grab my bag from the overhead compartment and follow Mindy back to 35 J, K, L before somebody comes to their senses. Her relief and gratitude is palpable.

“Can I bring you champagne?”

“Thank you no, I’m in good shape here.”

“Well, I so appreciate it. Let me know if there’s anything we can get you.”

Mindy, seen from my new seats, plural

Before we took off, the purser (chief of the flight attendant staff) came by to personally thank me as well, and to offer me anything I needed. There’s times when it’s too bad I don’t have a taste for champagne.

But the Universe had an extra twist coming…

Right before the doors closed, the kid who had created all the drama shows up at my seat. He was pale, and you could see he was in the after-shock of a serious claustrophobic episode.

“Man, you saved my life. If you have PayPal, I can send you money to cover the cost of the upgrade.”

“Thank you, but that’s not at all necessary. I’m perfectly fine here, and I’m glad it worked out. You have a good flight.”

“Well thank you. Now I will.”

On the heels of my all-night poker session, I lay down across my three seats, put white noise on the ear buds, and pulled my eye shade down. We were more than halfway to San Francisco when I woke up.

It’s no matter, no distance…

I had forgotten how much I love travel, and forgotten how much I missed it. This trip reminded me of that, and let me get my travel muscle back into shape. It was grand to be in London again, and a joy to see North Yorkshire for the first time.

But the best part was waking to a different horizon, hearing a London or Yorkshire accent in the voices, and seeing somewhere different.

It’s the ride.


[1] Carrie denominates such wins in “buy-ins.” Usage:
Me: “I just saved $40 on a cross-Bay Lyft, $200 on a rental car, and $60 on parking.”
Carrie: “That’s a full $1/3 buy-in. Well played.”

[2] We were at the King’s Cross train station for the family’s first UK visit (2002?). It was when the Harry Potter books had just come out. I made the boys stand at a point where I could take a picture with tracks 9 and 10 in the frame behind them. They thought it was lame beyond words. Fast forward 20 years – there is an entire Harry Potter store immediately adjacent to those two tracks, and a giant sign indicating track 9 3/4.

Categories
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.

Sh*t.

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. 

Categories
Politics

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.

Categories
Music

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.