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.
Eventually, the glorious sound of instruments tuning wafted across the pond.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.  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.
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.
 I really hope there’s a dry fly called a Morticia Adams
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.
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.
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. 
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 knowmy 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.
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,  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.
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…
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.
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.”
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.
 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.”
 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.
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.
[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.
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.”  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:
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. 
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.
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.
 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.
 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.
[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.
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.”
[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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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:
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]
[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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.  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).
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…
“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.
 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.